WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
We open on a close-up of a gun, which is as good a way to dive in to Fritz Lang’s American career as any. A hand reaches into the frame and picks it up. The gunshot happens off-screen, and the body of Tom Duncan, a corrupt police officer, collapses on his desk. It’s a suicide—the kind of simple, open-and-shut case that always begins a film noir. But then a B-girl steps forward. She was having an affair with the deceased, and she says it couldn’t have been suicide. And if, for a moment, you doubt what you saw, you’ve gotten your first lesson (ten minutes in) on how Lang’s American films like to play with their audience.
The Big Heat is one of the classics of film noir, and for me, it surpasses its more famous brethren: more darkly thrilling than The Maltese Falcon, more emotionally resonant than Laura, and just plain more comprehensible than The Big Sleep. The trailer promises a tale of “vice, dice, and corruption”, to which I’d add “revenge.” Lang was practically the filmmaker-laureate on the subject, going back to his silent epic Die Nibelungen, and he makes for a keen observer on how the desire for vengeance can strip away humanity. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing The Big Heat on the big screen in a packed theater, and I can say that its crooked path of vengeance and redemption still gets a response. Lang’s films are forerunners, and yet they often seem to go farther than what followed. To watch The Big Heat is to see tropes that have long since become clichés (“I’ll have your badge and gun!”) get jolted back to life. And let us remember the beating heart of the film, Gloria Grahame.
So you might say that this is my favorite of Lang’s American films for reasons that are readily apparent on the surface. But keeping in mind that old dictum on how nothing is more deceptive than a simple story, there are a few threads running just under the surface that I’d like to draw attention to.
The first is an allegory of gender and violence, and indeed, I would say that the film is very much about the link between the two. The world of The Big Heat is a man’s world, where women are defined primarily in their relation to men: “Tom Duncan’s widow,” “Mrs. Bannion”, and “Vince Stone’s girl.” This last epithet is particularly important: at several points during the film, Debbie Marsh (Grahame) is referred to as the property of Vince (Lee Marvin), her boyfriend and the sadistic right-hand man of the local kingpin. In one scene, Debbie reveals that Vince has beaten her before, and her justification plays like the justification of any woman who’s stayed in an abusive relationship: “Why kick? You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
So as Glenn Ford’s police sergeant prowls the streets to expose corruption, the film takes the form of a struggle between two masculine forces, with Ford on one side and the gangsters on the other. And its worth noting that as this struggle goes on, the victims who get caught in the crossfire are primarily women: the B-girl Lucy Chapman, the hero’s wife, and finally Debbie herself, in a scene whose cruelty still gets a collective gasp from the audience.
It’s fitting, then, that the story can only be brought to satisfying relief when the woman herself becomes the avenging angel, paying Lee Marvin back in turn and proudly crowing, “I did it!” I would argue, then, that the film is actually very feminist for 1953—placing violence by men against women in the forefront—and that Debbie (despite negligible screen-time in the first half) is the real hero of the film.
The second thread I find interesting is an allegory of innocence and corruption. The film goes to great lengths to show the Glenn Ford character as a paragon of virtue, righteousness, and all the traits that fall under that problematic banner of “American values.” After all, Bannion is, it would seem, a classic movie hero—a clean cop, a loving husband, and a caring father. As he did with Fury, his first American film, Lang stages the early scenes of domestic tranquility with a kind of exaggerated hyper-innocence that’s at once ironic, lyrical, and maybe even a little surreal. One of the great things about Lang’s American films is the way Lang uses American ideals as a backdrop for his tales of grotesque impulses. The décor of his daughter’s room, the way his wife won’t repeat the swear words she heard from the threatening call—it’s as if these moments take place in a Norman Rockwell fantasy, but with an awareness that it can’t last.
Bannion does, of course, waver over the course of the film as he gets drawn to anger, and I think its fair to say that Lang doesn’t let our sympathy fall unequivocally behind him. His final test is Bertha Duncan. Her death will release incriminating information and bring “the big heat” down on the film’s villains. But can he bring himself to kill her? And if he does, is he still clean? It’s clear that he wants to, given the chance. But Debbie—who, as a “gangster’s girl”, fell from society’s grace a long time ago—does it for him, and in his final speech, his anger cools. This is why I feel Debbie is the protagonist of the story: she changes the most over the course of the film, and she absorbs the moral fall so that Our Hero can continue to be a symbol for truth, justice, and the America way. This makes the happy ending, with Ford back to work and the mean streets of the city under control, not obligatory uplift but rather the end of a thematic arc.
There are other, more debatable threads as well. For one, I’d love to hear what everyone makes of the sexual ambiguity (coded, 50s Hollywood-style) of the mob boss. But for now, I’ll be happy to say that The Big Heat holds up under scrutiny as a rich film, and Lang’s stamp is all over it, from the atmosphere to the moral ambiguities to the carefully placed dashes of Expressionism.
I picked The Big Heat because it’s the best gateway drug to Lang’s work in America. It’s a showcase for his technical skill, visual style, and common themes, all done with tremendous immediacy. Lang would be more atmospheric, more poetic, and, to put it simply, weirder, but at no other point in Hollywood did he offer such a tightly constructed and potent film. I’ll end with one of my favorite details in The Big Heat: when Bannion confronts Bertha Duncan, she reveals (with a mocking tone) that it was only after he started an affair with the B-girl that Tom Duncan decided to turn over a new leaf and go straight. Thus, the society dame is revealed to be corrupt, and the B-girl a force for purity. And that, to me, is the essence of noir.
Thanks for the intro—and the spoiler warning. I’ll be back to comment once I’ve seen it.
And best of luck in the match ;)
Nice into, Duncan.
I love this film.
It’s a classic for sure but not my favorite Lang noir. I prefer “Woman in the Window” or “Scarlet Street”. They have more twisted emotions at the core than “The Big Heat” does. I believe they also have a richer visual fabric. “The Big Heat” often feels stale in comparison. Though noir doesn’t get any more brutal than the infamous coffee pot scene. Well, maybe the old lady and the staircase in “Kiss of Death”.
It’s possibly Fritz Lang’s greatest Hollywood film.
Gloria Grahame’s fantastic, her best performance. The dialogue she’s given is like a gift, and she creates movie magic with it.
Thank you, and I’d love to know what you think of it! The Blues Brothers has been one of my all-time favorites for over a decade now, so I’m looking forward to an exciting match.
I can see where you’re coming from. Scarlet Street in particular is probably the most emotionally twisted of all noirs, and after The Big Heat, it’s definitely next in line on my list of favorite American Lang films. I really like The Woman in the Window as well, but I’m avoiding playing it in the Cup, since I’m guessing a lot of people will be put off by the twist ending, which is a bit dramatically contrived, but thematically appropriate. Have you seen his other Joan Bennett film, Secret Beyond the Door? It’s pretty emotionally murky as well.
Haven’t yet seen “Secret Beyond the Door” but hope to soon. It seems like Lang has a never ending body of work in 40s/50s Hollywood. I probably haven’t seen half of his films from this period.
phenomenal movie. easily one of my all-time favorites…..
Lang is amazing! I remember seeing this on T.V. and loving every minute of it.
Lang always examined the nightmares of life…. The darker view of things.
I love him!
The title, to me, has a double meaning. In the gangster slang of the era, “heat” was pressure applied by the police on criminals and criminal activity. But in allegorical terms, “the big heat” could be Hell.
Likewise, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye are euphemisms for Death.
And heat is still used as gangster slang today. If you’re “hot”, or if you have some hot merchandise on you, that means wanted (by the police). “Heat” or “heater” is also slang for a gun.
Saw this today for the first time — my first Lang film in quite a while — and it’s a classic. I agree with your acute observations on the gender aspects, Duncan. It’s particularly revealing to hear that Bannion’s reason for not giving in to temptation with Debby has to do with more than just the memory of his recently deceased wife. “I wouldn’t touch anything of Vince Stone’s with a ten foot pole”.
I think I just realized this is the first Hollywood film I’ve ever seen from Lang and I actually love it more than anything else I’ve ever seen from him. I was trying to figure out if I should give this film a 10/10 or not after watching it last night and reading your OP gave me goosebumps remembering it so I know I’m going to now.
and just plain more comprehensible than The Big Sleep.
Incomprehensible plotlines seems to be the norm of Noir but I think this one actually was easier to follow than most. I like that though!
It’s particularly revealing to hear that Bannion’s reason for not giving in to temptation with Debby has to do with more than just the memory of his recently deceased wife. “I wouldn’t touch anything of Vince Stone’s with a ten foot pole”.
Yes indeed. In general, I find Bannion’s behavior—and the film’s treatment of him—to be very interesting. A friend of mine told after a screening of the film that he didn’t find Bannion very charismatic: even before his wife is killed, he just keeps growling with a sense of self-righteous, like he’s not a hero but a caricature of one. But I don’t think this escapes the film’s notice. In other words, I don’t think The Big Heat expects us to cheer on Glenn Ford the same way that, say, Dirty Harry expects us to cheer on Clint Eastwood. There’s an undercurrent of irony that future directors would either overplay or miss altogether. (One of my favorite things about the film is the way it seems to be telling a joke that Ford isn’t in on).
I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yeah, noirs are notoriously complicated, and The Big Heat is uncommon in that it makes more sense on repeat viewings rather than less. It’s a good place to begin Lang’s American career, and I’ll be showing a more off the beaten path American film for Round 3.
That’s great to hear. I’m looking forward to checking out more noir from Lang, be it in this cup or not, but I think Lang is my favorite of group 7 to go on at this point, so I hope it gets to be in this cup.
it’s certainly a treasure.
i prefer it to M and Metropolis.
“Fury” is amazing too though. Probably equal to “The Big Heat”