By David Nilsen
The Big Heat was one of the most intense and gritty noir films made during the genre’s two decade prime. Arriving in the latter half of that era (roughly 1941-1959), the film displayed the moral ambiguity and unflinching violence that the neo-noirs of the late twentieth century would eventually cash in on. Most of the noirs of the classic era were as sanitized as the rest of the Hollywood films of the time. Despite dealing with crime and murder, the films banked more on style than on sensationalism. The murders were very clean, the violence was never all that violent, and the bad guys and good guys were more often than not two sides of the same cool, glossy coin. Not so with The Big Heat.
The film follows Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a homicide detective investigating the apparent suicide of a fellow officer. He doesn’t buy the suicide story, but quickly discovers his superiors don’t appreciate him nosing around for more answers. He suspects the police brass is corrupt, serving more to protect the local crime syndicate than to uphold justice. When he upsets the syndicate, retribution comes in the form of a shocking act of violence against his family. With nothing to lose, he accuses his superiors of corruption and quits the force, freeing him to seek justice (and answers) without the burden of following police protocols. Bannion is played with believable exhaustion by Glenn Ford, one of the great and most underrated actors of the era.
The film, as already stated, is far less sanitary than the other crime films of its day. The movie’s on-screen violence, while not as extreme as that of some current films, is shocking for the era. Lee Marvin is brilliant as Vince Stone, the crime boss’s lieutenant and lead muscle, and the film displays him as an unbridled sadist. He is more than just rough and tough–he clearly delights in inflicting pain, particularly on pretty women. A woman he kills is found to have been burned with a cigarette before her death. He similarly burns the hand of a woman at a nightclub. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, he scalds and scars his own girlfriend (played by the inimitable Gloria Grahame) with a pot of boiling coffee. Pay close attention to Marvin’s portrayal of Stone, and you’ll notice how much he’s telling us in between the acts of violence. He grows noticeably agitated as violence approaches, fidgeting and sweating. He’s excited and nervous as the opportunity for inflicting pain presents itself. When backed into a corner, he’s more like a boy than a grown man, frightened and jumpy, showing none of the cool authority he projects at other times.
Grahame is perfectly cast as Debby Marsh, a role with uncomfortable tie-ins to some of her true life problems. After being scalded with boiling coffee, her face is horribly scarred. She knows she’s now lost her only real currency in this misogynistic crime world, and she despairs of what will become of her. Grahame was an actress of tremendous (and underutilized) talent, but she mistakenly believed her greatest asset was her looks, which was perpetually insecure about. She had multiple ill-advised cosmetic surgeries, never believing herself pretty enough, one of which resulted in the partial and permanent paralyzation of her upper lip. To play a character who must face life with severe facial scarring must have been brutal for Grahame, and the overlap is poignant for the viewer.
The Big Heat is one of the very best of a classic noirs, and was directed by one of the all-time great noir directors, Fritz Lang. Lang was gifted at showing the audience the flawed humanity of his characters in an era that often depended more on style than deep character study. Consequently, his crime films were deeply felt and often troubling.
I hope you’ll join us on Thursday, November 17, at 7 p.m. to watch The Big Heat as part of GPL’s Third Floor Film Series. As always, free popcorn, candy, coffee, and Jones Soda will be provided, and I will be leading a brief discussion after the film. I hope to see you there.