Monday, February 14, 2011

The Big Heat


[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Fritz Lang's The Big Heat is a dark, tough noir, an intense crime thriller that moves at an unrelentingly brisk pace as it delves fearlessly into the darkness of its story. It is a remarkably adult film, never wincing away from the seedy truths at its core, and for the Hollywood of its era — even in the gritty world of the noir — it especially stands out. Its dialogue is taut and punchy, dealing candidly with this world of corruption, adultery, death and disfigurement, and the sad fate of "that kind of girl." The film focuses on the scrupulously honest cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a guy with such a highly developed sense of morality that he never thinks twice about doing the right thing. When the suicide of a highly positioned police officer starts stirring up some ugly suspicions, Bannion charges into the middle of the case, even when it becomes apparent that there are some very powerful people above him who would like the whole matter to be put to rest as quickly and cleanly as possible. Bannion can't go along with that. He's got a kind of brute force morality that drives him forward, pushing at the people who'd like him to simply go away — including the dead cop's widow, Mrs. Duncan (Jeanette Nolan) and the gangster Lagana (Alexander Scourby), a powerful man with connections that run deep into the police force. Bannion doesn't have the smarts to conduct his investigation quietly or subtly, so he just keeps forcing himself on underworld contacts and on Lagana himself until someone decides he needs to be dealt with.

Bannion is setting himself up for tragedy, and of course he gets it. The film goes to some very dark places, but before it does, Lang takes pains to establish the stakes for Bannion: a very happy home life with a lovely wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando), and a daughter. The early scenes of Bannion and his wife at home create a contrast against the darkness and corruption he encounters at work. Bannion is scraping by on a cop's salary, always conscious of the tight budget his family has to maintain, and his conversations with his wife about money set him apart from the dead Duncan, who'd transcended his cop's salary by serving on a criminal's payroll, at least until his conscience caught up with him. Moreover, the scenes between Bannion and Katie serve as a tonal contrast; these scenes are syrupy and romantic, dripping with pathos and big goopy closeups, and the bright, clean light of the Bannions' home makes it look like a cheery sitcom set as opposed to all the shadowy hotel rooms and seedy bars where the corrupt and the crooked do their deals. The couple has a light, flirtatious relationship, rooted in concrete details like Katie's habit of taking a sip of her husband's beer or polishing off his whiskey, or their gentle sparring and coded sexual banter as she prepares dinner. Their romance is pure and good, but it's obvious from the beginning that Lang is establishing this foundation for Bannion only in order to disrupt it in some way.

When the disruption finally comes, it's one of the film's most chilling scenes, a shattering break in this domestic bliss that comes just as Bannion is telling a story to his daughter. The remainder of the film ventures even further into darkness, as Bannion becomes obsessed with breaking up the ring of corruption in his city, following the chain of crime towards the men who pull the strings from behind the scenes. He particularly becomes concerned with Lagana's right-hand man, Vince (Lee Marvin), a sociopathic tough guy who takes his anger out on women more often than not. Vince has a bouncy, cheery good-time girl, Debby (Gloria Grahame), who drunkenly mocks Vince's eager obedience to Lagana, but is still happy to profit off the illegal gains from her man's shady activities.


Like so many of the best noirs, The Big Heat is about pain and rage, about revenge and justice. Lang focuses intently on both the violence and its ugly consequences, particularly when the psychopathic Vince goes too far with Debby. Vince is a brutish character, played with chilly intensity by Marvin, whose tight-lipped, stony expression perfectly captures the casually sociopathic violence of this killer. In one crucial scene, Vince utterly loses his cool and assaults Debby with a coffee pot, perhaps a nod to Raymond Burr in a similarly unhinged performance in Anthony Mann's Raw Deal.

Grahame is even better as the hard-drinking party girl who's eventually forced to sober up and face the ugly reality of the life she'd been living. As with the use of Bannion's relationship with his wife, Lang develops a contrast between the playfulness of Debby and the crude nastiness of Vince. There's also a contrast between Debby in the first half of the film and the increasingly pained, pathetic Debby in the second half of the film. Debby goes from a character of light — dancing around in Vince's well-lit apartment, cracking jokes and admiring herself in a mirror — to a woman who's afraid of the light, who wants to hide in the shadows instead. The film cleverly exploits these dichotomies between dark and light, and it's especially interesting that Lang reverses the motif for Debby. When she's in the light, she's living a corrupt life as a thug's moll, enjoying her decadent ease with dirty money paying for her shopping trips and keeping her supplied with liquor. It's only when she's swallowed up in shadows that she sees things with some clarity. It's fitting, then, that she spends the second half of the film divided in half, her face half-covered with a white bandage, the other half of her face often bathed in the richly textured shadows of Lang's images. Debby is divided between a fun, mostly carefree past that now seems lost forever, and the knowledge of the ugliness on which that life had been built.

The Big Heat is a powerful film, a stark examination of the tremendous difficulty of maintaining honor and morality in a corrupt world — an examination of the risks of speaking truth to power, and the slim rewards. In the film's final scene, Bannion has returned to the daily routine of police investigation. There is no glory, no real reward, only the resumption of relative normality, minus the horrible costs he'd already paid. That's part of what makes the film so bracing and affecting and even, despite its glossy aesthetics, somewhat realistic in its portrayal of corruption and the cost of honesty.

16 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's quite teriffic film. And everyone should check out the tow other Bigs of that era: Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo and Joseph Losey's The Big Night.

Greg said...

In the end, Bannion is too cheery. Not as a fault of the movie, I mean, but as a blunt examination of who he is as a person. I think it was Ebert who pointed out in his review the line about "keep the coffee hot" as he bounces out the door before the credits roll. He doesn't seem to have any memory of what has recently and horribly transpired. He doesn't seem affected by the loss of his wife anymore either.

He's happy now because he won. It's probably just an overly zealous cynical interpretation on my part but I feel Lang and writer Sydney Boehm were painting Bannion not so much as a man who fights for what is right because of a moral conscience but rather, because once he falls on one side of an issue or the other, there is no backing down. He must be the winner, every time.

And so, at the end, all the pain and disfigurement and death was worth it, because he won. And that's all that matters to him.

Ed Howard said...

Those are 2 films I definitely need to get to, David.

Greg, that's an interesting reading of the ending, and I think you're largely right. There's a weird tone to the ending, which is ostensibly happy, but it's unquestionable that this seems like such a small, petty victory after so much loss. When one thinks back on the movie, weighing that ending scene against the one where Bannion is reading a story to his daughter, followed by that devastating BOOM, there's no question that the film's costs and rewards are severely unbalanced. Bannion did what was right, but what a horrible price to pay for such a meager triumph of justice and the law. A lot of movies based on this template make fighting for what's right seem so good and honorable that it's appealing, but not this film: even when the good guy wins, it's a pretty shallow, insubstantial victory.

Greg said...

even when the good guy wins, it's a pretty shallow, insubstantial victory.

It's one of the things that gets me to sit through it anytime I flip over to TCM and it's on. Bannion is one of the great selfish noir characters. He just plows forward despite all kinds of warnings all around him. Everyone is concerned, even his wife, but none of that matters to him. He's incredibly reckless as a father, husband and police officer and will keep putting people in harms way as long as it helps him win the game.

Ed Howard said...

In a way, he's even kind of an idiot; as I said, he's unable to conduct this investigation in a quiet, patient way that might have yielded results, eventually, so instead he just goes barrelling around drawing attention to himself as a troublemaker. He might as well walk around wearing a sign that reads "kill me now."

It's also pretty radical for a Hollywood film to suggest that, sometimes, law and order just aren't worth it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The scene with Jeanette Nolan where Gloria Grahame says "We're sisters under the mink" is teriffic, as is her matchless line when taken to the hotel -- "I like it -- early nothing."

Tinky said...

I haven't seen this film in many years; thanks for reminding me that a re-viewing is definitely in order.

Sam Juliano said...

"Like so many of the best noirs, The Big Heat is about pain and rage, about revenge and justice."

Indeed. I saw this film just two weeks ago at the Film Forum as part of the 22 film Hollywood retrospective of Fritz Lang's American period, and by any barometer of measurement it's one of Lang's greatest films in Hollywood, ranking with YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, CLAH BY NIGHT, THE MINISTRY OF FEAR and SCARLET STREET. Despite the seemingly happy ending the film is as nihilistic as SCARLET STREET as the the moral vistory was attained at way too high a price. Debbie's dual nature is illustrated by the pretty and disfigured sides of her face.

Again, Lang explores his prevelent theme of judicial injustice, and while the theme isn't as ragically transcribed as it is in YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, it's the cause of the spiralling events that cause multiple deaths.

Excellent review.

Ed Howard said...

"Early nothing" - such a great line from such a tough noir dame.

Tinky, glad I could prompt a rewatch of this great film.

Sam, I figured you'd be all over this after that Film Forum retrospective! It's definitely a great film, and you're right to pick up on the theme of "judicial injustice" - the legal system failing in its duty and sending the characters spiraling to ruin. Definitely a favorite theme of Lang's, also prevalent in Fury, which I'll be writing about later this week.

John said...

Ed, THE BIG HEAT is one of the first noirs I ever took to. I love the way Lang offset the violent world Bannion’s job forces him to deal with versus his almost overly sweet home life. If this film were made today, the audience would surely know the wife would meet an ugly end, however I think this might have had an even bigger shock back in the early 50’s when the film was first released.
I have never taken to Glenn Ford as an actor (yet there are quite a few films he has been in that I like), he always seemed a little too squeaky clean, too straight an arrow but that image actually works for him here perfectly. In the end, he has sacrifices much and Greg and you point out, as long as he’s won, he seems okay with it. Gloria Grahame is wonderful as if Lee Marvin whose contributions you point out masterfully. A powerful film.

Ed Howard said...

John, totally agreed about the way that the sweet home life is contrasted against the darkness of crime and policework. Even seen today, it's pretty shocking when that squeaky-clean suburban ideal is disrupted in such a violent way. Lang used a similar structure in Fury, where the ideal is corrupted and stained by violence, and in both cases the effect is jaw-dropping.

cinema-fanatic.com said...

LOVE this film.

thomas said...

Haven't seen it in a while, but made a strong impression when I first saw. The domestic set up and the explosion- how a 50's audience must have reacted...

And too, if I'm remembering correctly, There's not too much" literal" noir, in HEAT- all pretty bright and flatly lighted. And isn't all played in somewhat shallow space? No John Alton deep space and chiaroscuro.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, Thomas. There's definitely some contrast between the brightly lit spaces and the darkness of the story - though there are at least a few conventionally noirish scnes, like when Debby visits Bannion at his darkened hotel room.

Joe Thompson said...

Ed, thanks for writing about one of my favorites. It is a favorite even though it is a painful movie to watch, for the reasons that you mention, the sudden destruction of the happy home life, the bull-headed pursuit of justice, no matter who gets hurt, and poor Debby. I think giving her a child-like name was a great touch.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Joe. "Painful to watch," that about covers it. The explosion is devastating, and the business with the coffee pot has only slightly less impact.