#2 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
It’s always interesting to revisit a film I’ve seen a long time ago, where I had written specific thoughts on it, while seeing it outside of the context of the director’s body of work only to return to it within that very context years later. You really gain an extra level of perspective about subtext that you might have missed the first time through.
What’s interesting is how suppressed Lang’s own voice had become over the previous ten to fifteen years in Hollywood, coming up in small bursts here and there, and it fully coming back here in The Big Heat. Once again, we have a main character in a corrupt system in the search for justice. Combining that with the more Hollywood conventions that Lang had become comfortable with over a decade in the industry, and you’ve got a crackling noir thriller.
Where this succeeds more fully where his previous films hadn’t, especially The Blue Gardenia, is the dual focus on both Glenn Ford’s Dave as well as Gloria Grahame’s Debby, especially on Debby. They mirror each other as parallel vehicles for violence and vengeance against the corruption that maimed them both in different ways, Dave in the death of his wife and Debby in the permanent scarring of her face with that famous pot of boiling hot coffee. They become intertwined and complimentary, never competing for screen time with opposing purposes but helping each other feed the movie’s central idea of the degrading nature of violence in the pursuit of justice.
That Debby chooses to sacrifice herself to save Dave, the only good man she’s ever known, is a great tragedy, pulling the film out of its pulpier roots into something that’s more definingly American art.
Lang continues his great visual sense, of course, extending his hold on the noir genre with one of the best examples of it, using his shadows and ability with a roving camera and precise, intelligent framing in combination with his motifs like mirrors (that usually reflect hidden, inner lives), and you’ve got a movie that feels more fully like a Fritz Lang movie than anything he’d made since Scarlet Street.
It’s Fritz Lang’s best American movie, the best combination of the kind of movie he wanted to make and the kind of movie Hollywood would let him make.