Fritz Lang Season – The Big Heat (1953)
If you’ll bear with me I’d like to tell you a story. My first exposure to the work of Fritz Lang, other than being passingly aware of the silent pedigree of Metropolis as a SF film fan, was his 1953 noir classic The Big Heat. I’d recently embarked on my first tier of academic study of film at my local secondary college, and the first strand of investigation was genre theory, the detective movie being our initial line of inquiry. Watching this film was actually issued as homework and I internally groaned like a gut-punched pimp at the absurd imposition, a black and white film from them there olden days wasn’t exactly within my comfort or interest level back in that immature, embryonic film obsession era. Still, a dutiful student I conducted the autopsy and a curious conclusion was unearthed – I actually liked the film, I enjoyed watching it and could even partially strip away its historical trappings of dialogue, style and monochrome presentation to peek at its nebulous core, an urban framed story of vengeance and vindication set against an ichorous back-drop of institutional corruption. As I began to read more about how genre as a concept worked in that golden era, when the studios essentially established one of the crucial infrastructural pillars of film form, where they framed the production line of their product to clearly imposed models (Film Studies 101 basic overview here), my understanding of this ethereal form of entertainment begin to take on new dimensions, and we’ve never looked back since. I’ve always been partial to a dark, urban crime story in any format, devouring the work of Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy and others over the years, so it’s as certain as a double-crossing dame that I’d gravitate to that sub-genre of movie which the French coined as film noir, and since Fritz Lang was one of, if not the most brilliant practitioner of the form our paths would cross eventually. Lang loved urban settings, he loved the freedom and contradictions of America, its social cultures and concepts which obscured some less salubrious exhibitions of the human condition, the struggle of the figures who operate on the fringes of acceptable society and those tasked and stained with apprehending and defending us from those malignant miscreants….
A gunshot fills the opening of the picture with the acrid stench of gunpowder, the suicide of troubled police officer Tom Duncan setting the investigation in motion. Assigned to the case is Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford, best known today as Pa Kent in the Reeve era Superman movie), a determined iron-jawed sort who soon discovers that his colleague was playing the field with local floozy Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), with a wife back home his indiscretions being a potent blackmail opportunity should some n’er de well seize the opportunity. Bannion discovers that Duncan had two houses, impossible to afford on his salary, and after he interrogate’s his colleagues widow on their financial situation he gets a dressing down from his boss, who is under mysterious orders from the boys ‘down-town’ to shut and forget the case. Meanwhile local crime kingpin Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) tries to scare Bannion off the scent with various threats after Chapman washes up dead a couple of days later, resorting to the rather indiscriminate method of bombing his car and killing Bannion’s Katie (Jocelyn Brando) by mistake. With nothing to lose and realising that his colleagues are also in the kingpin’s pocket Bannion goes rogue on a righteous path of vengeance, dragging his noble spirit into the gutter when he starts putting the pressure on lower tier Syndicate enforcer Vince Stone (Lee Marvin in one of his first screen roles) and his fiery moll Debbie (Gloria Grahame)…..
As a fan of gritty, urban lurked crime pictures you have to see The Big Heat simply for Lee Marvin first memorable appearance, he’s a hulking, gurning, physical presence in the picture who would go on to snarl through classics such as Point Blank, Bad Day At Black Rock, The Killers and The Dirty Dozen, as well as lesser known cult efforts such as Prime Cut and the Professionals. As so often occurs a star was born after the introduction of one notorious scene, a moment of scandalous, scalding violence which was the Reservoir Dogs ear severance of its time, prompting cultural commentators and critics to ask if violence in the movies has gone too far – I wonder what they would make of, say Crank 2? I’m also a massive fan of the delectable Gloria Grahame, she was frequently cast as a smoky gangsters moll type, the sassy, wise-cracking sort whom exudes a dangerous sensuality, she even cropped up as George Bailey’s potential temptation in the festive classic It’s A Wonderful Life. The film was much more stage-bound and studio manufactured than I remembered, it’s all shot on the Columbia back-lot in that period before a new phalanx of lightweight cameras released studio directors from their sound-stage chains and released them out into real locations, although of course they can control a set much more effectively in terms of lighting and coverage without these pesky impediments of permits or weather. In terms of direction Lang throws in a few subtle touches which he snuck under the studio system’s blueprints, a tri-panelled mirror isolating our hero before he interrogates his colleagues wife, a composition which signals her cloaked intentions, his soon to be distorted life and the uneasy deception between them. More generally the technique is gliding and procedural, scanning through the sets to give an uneasy sense of momentum to the odyssey, a prowling hunger which the characters harbour both sexual and material.
The Big Heat is less overtly stylised than 1940’s noir which emitted a much higher contrast between the blacks & whites in the negative, and the film seemed to me to have a faded veneer with less reliance on slanting blinds bisecting image or the usual trick of some sleazy blinking neon from exterior bars and nightclubs, quite frankly it looks more like the TV of the period rather than a stand-alone studio picture. As well as the visual trajectory the plot focus is on the procedures and politics of a syndicated system where corruption is endemic, and instead of cutting between dialogue bursts the shots are held in discrete masters, only cutting in on reaction shots or crucial line readings, a formal preservation of the procedural format of the movie expressed by Bannion’s unswerving dedication – the DNA of the detective genre. This is a recurring theme throughout Lang’s expansive career, he was fascinated with systems, of society being inalienably corrupt and self-serving on both sides of the increasingly intangible notion of ‘law’, a sense of morals and duty as medieval symbols of righteousness which have decayed and faded over the centuries to the point of irrevocable redundancy.
The film also toys with some of the core noir conventions which by 1953 was over a decade into its original cycle (the first widely accepted noir film was 1940’s Stranger On the Second Floor but contrarians of course have championed earlier pictures), the femme fatale motif of purring poisonous felines slaying her quivering mate at the pictures climax (usually before dying herself or taken into custody – the censorship conventions mean you couldn’t get away with anything back in the 1950’s) is inverted by the death of all the female characters in the film, whether saintly (Bannion’s wife) and satanic (well, just about everyone else). In its final death throes The Big Heat is an oestrogen holocaust, with a curious caress of having the crime lord Lagana fractured with a Mommy’s Boy Oedipal fixation which throws even deeper, darker shadows across the films sexual politics. So, in the final analysis perhaps the film isn’t as assured and corrosive as cast-iron classics of the genre – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Build My Gallows High – but there is still plenty to enjoy in Grahame’s provocative betrayal, Ford’s stoic persistence, Marvin’s big screen breakthrough and one of Lang’s most illustrative distillations of his own criminal obsessions – case closed;