4/4, Fritz Lang

Some extra thoughts on The Big Heat

#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.

10 thoughts on “Some extra thoughts on The Big Heat”

    1. It’s why I write so far ahead. If I get derailed for a couple of days, the schedule holds. Of course, that’s because I’m insane and maintaining a public journal in the hopes that it drives some modicum of sales of a handful of books.


  1. I saw this one some time ago and it’s stunning. Gloria Grahame is wonderful. What struck me is how Ford became grimmer and darker when his wife died, like she was the only thing keeping him from being like those he hunted.

    I remember a really chilling scene where Ford meets some low-level thug and tells him that he (Ford) put the word out that the thug had “talked,” knowing his partners would take care of him. (Which they did, in an almost casual bit of dialogue.) But it showed that Ford was skilled at using his enemies’ methods.

    I do seem to recall that Ford regained his humanity when he was talking about his wife with Grahame. That’s a really touching scene, just sentimental enough not to become saccharine.


    1. It feels very B-movie in certain ways. The budget was obviously very small. The stars were second-rate. It dealt in very familiar territory for noir which was shoveling out stuff about one man against corruption and a beautiful dame caught somewhere in between for about a decade.

      And yet, it packs the real emotional punch of something given much more care. The script is very good, but it’s obvious that Lang’s professionalism and talent with both camera and actors helped elevate the material as well.


  2. Ok, did a re-watch last night. I know the movie but wanted to talk details because this is a very good movie and a very good Noir.

    This is a dark, bitter Noir, too, a classic of the genre. We open on a gun, a gun used by a man to kill himself (off camera, this is still the 50’s), and then his wife (though I would have bought ‘housekeeper’ on first appearance) discovers the body and she…doesn’t freak out. She doesn’t weep. She opens the letter, reads through it. That’s your first hint that this isn’t a normal movie.

    Next we have a man in his pajamas being awakened by….a handsome young man in a bathrobe, showing skin under the robe. That slipped by me the first few viewings, but the handsome bodyguard who isn’t a very good bodyguard…the lack of a wife, the framed picture of his mother…yeah.

    There are a lot of details here that are shown but rarely told. As BC said, the movie makes it clear that it was his wife that was the humanizing, civilizing force in Glenn Ford’s Bannion’s life. Without her, he’s hateful, murderous and pretty much no different from Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone…something explicitly called out in the movie.

    I want to praise Lee Marvin here too. He’s not usually given much accolades for his acting talent, but he plays both psycho and thinker here, he plays a bully with the bully’s moral weakness. For a guy who makes his reputation as a tough guy, we see just how weak Stone is when he’s confronted by Bannion, we also see him talking to Lagana as an equal, not just a lackey.

    And, though Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister, is given a role to be “just” the perfect wife, she really is perfect. The kind of ‘once in a lifetime’ girl you can dream about. And she has good chemistry with Glenn Ford.

    Speaking of…Glenn Ford probably does his best performance of his life in The Big Heat. A Coast Guard vet, when WW 2 kicked off, he enlisted in the Marines as a private instead of taking an offered officer’s allocation. He didn’t get to fight, as he desperately wanted, due to a medical discharge unlike fellow Marine Lee Marvin, but he stayed in the reserves for decades. Ford was a motivated man and a motivated actor and you see that here. You see the hardness that made him excel in Marine training, the comfortable physicality. For most of his films, Ford always seemed more comfortable playing an angry man, for whatever reason. When he was gentle or romantic, that was when I got the feeling he was acting, not his angry scenes. Might just be me, though. Here he gets to show the full range of emotions, from compassion to cruelty, love to murderousness. He leaves it all on the floor and it works.

    I know everyone praises Gloria Graham and her Debby here, perhaps with good reason, but she isn’t a…good person. Or a moral person. She intends to cheat on her boyfriend with Bannion, and only his disinterest and grief keeps her from her goal, she hops when Lagana says hop and has no problem taking dirty money. It’s vanity that turns her agains the sadistic Vince, he ruined her looks, and in return..she murders an unarmed woman so her secret cache of evidence against Lagana, and Vince, will come out. Not someone who I can praise.

    Every major character is morally compromised here, except for Jocelyn Brando. Debby only gets the idea of murder from Bannion, who was literally about to kill her when the cops show up. This is a strong element of classic film Noir and this is a very good example of the genre as a result.

    As for Fritz Lang, he gets to play with shadows (and mirrors) here with abandon and I love it. As always, he rarely dips into Expressionism for its own sake, but he and Charles Lang the cinematographer, use light and darkness as a character in the scenes. I don’t know if this is Lang’s best film but it’s probably his high water mark.


    1. I think you may be underselling Debby a bit. Yes, she’s vain and her motives for getting back at Vince are not pure, but part of her motives are an obvious effort to save Dave from the path he’s chosen after the death of his wife. That it’s another woman doing this is indicative of the quality writing at the film’s core.

      Still, such a great movie all around. Proof that small budgets don’t have to mean small films.


      1. She’s a bad girl doing a bad thing that benefits the protagonist. It’s a classic Noir trope and this is one of the trope codifiers. You can interpret her actions as redemptive, the movie seems to want it that way with her dying dialog. But taking a step back, there were other actions she could have taken to accomplish the same goal. She’s Vince’s girlfriend, she could have testified against him and his boss. But she chose murder. And as a vigilante justice story, totally cool. I’m a Punisher fan, after all. But she’s a bad girl.

        Jah, the script is straightforward, fast moving, really good. I don’t believe most good movies need complex plots or twist at the end.


      2. She’s a bad girl, but bad girls don’t know how to do good things the right way. They only know how to do good things the wrong way.

        I don’t think she’s good, but I think she’s trying to be good the only way she knows how. I find her very sympathetic.


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