There's a moment about an hour into The Big Heat that, if you're lucky enough to be watching it in a theater, will still make the audience gasp. It's an act of violence that seems both impossible, horrific, and then—given the story—inevitable. One of the silliest biases that many modern moviegoers have to overcome is the idea that Old Hollywood movies were safe: that they come from such a repressed, naive, and censored era that nothing too dangerous, worldly, or subversive could ever end up on screen. Few films can blast aside that misconception quite like The Big Heat. This is a Fritz Lang film, and few directors ever got away with more.
Lang, who turns 125 from beyond the grave this month, is one of the supreme iconic figures in cinema history, with a career that encompasses several artistic lifetimes and has fed more than a few apocryphal legends. In Wiemar Germany, he was the director of such big-budget "superfilms" as Metropolis (1927), Die Nibelungen (1924), and the first films in the Dr. Mabuse series, which are all but unparalleled in their technological innovation and their synthesis of commercial cinema and modernist art. After the Nazis took over, Lang left, first for France, then for Hollywood. And so, after being a major player in one studio system, he had to find a way to fit uneasily into another.
In truth, he never quite did. Unlike fellow emigres Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch, he didn't become a brand name with American audiences, enjoy a consistent spot on the A-list, or come within striking distance of an Oscar. In his biography of Lang, The Nature of the Beast—largely a hatchet job, but an indispensably well-researched one—film scholar Patrick McGilligan paints a picture of a filmmaker who was extremely difficult to work with, burned his share of bridges, and sometimes had to take whatever project he could get. But he stayed prolific, making over a film a year for 20 years, and this period is arguably a greater treasure trove than his more famous German work. Even when handed the most generic material, Lang could conjure a remarkable atmosphere from Hollywood sets, making their artifice feel like a nightmare. But The Big Heat was also one of the few times he was also handed an outstanding screenplay. And from it, he directed his American masterpiece and one of the greatest of all post-war noirs.
The Big Heat begins, in a grand crime pulp tradition, with a seemingly simple open-and-shut case. A veteran cop is found dead, presumably a suicide—though the shot happens just off-screen enough to create the faintest itch of doubt. Sgt. Bannion (Glenn Ford) is assigned to the case, and prepares to wrap it up with little fuss. But as he pulls at the loose ends, he exposes a corrupt police network, leading him to a criminal kingpin (Alexander Scourby), the kingpin's vicious henchman Vince (Lee Marvin, with evil relish), and the henchman's spirited girlfriend Debbie (Gloria Grahame). The ad campaign for The Big Heat luridly promised "vice...dice...and corruption!" To which I'd add "revenge." Lang was practically the filmmaker laureate of the subject, going back to Die Nibelungen, and Bannion soon enough becomes one of Lang's many obsessives. Revenge thrillers are a sub-genre with an inherent dissonance, both offering bloodlust for viewing pleasure and tempering it with the assurance of moral certainty. For this reason, any revenge thriller worth its salt tackles the subject with at least a hint of ambiguity. But few can match the deadly contraptions at The Big Heat's center: the first about guilt and heroism, the second about gender and violence.
So it's worth asking, as the story unfolds, who exactly the hero is supposed to be. Ostensibly, Our Hero is the Ford character. He is the officer of the law who'll chase crime to its source, no matter the cost. In the scenes of his home life, he is presented as not just a dedicated cop, but a model of American middle-class family values: a house in the suburbs, his daughter's toys in the yard, a smiling wife inside with an apron and a steak. As he did in his first Hollywood film, Fury (1936), Lang the foreigner stages these tableaux of wholesome Americana with an exaggerated hyper-innocence that’s at once ironic and strangely, wistfully lyrical. This is the idealized world Our Hero is protecting, and when its vulnerability is brutally revealed, he lashes back. Even from the beginning, Bannion is something of a blunt instrument, carrying himself with an unthinking self-righteousness and a one-note grunt. As he works his way through the criminal underworld, he becomes increasingly gloating and cruel, arriving finally (and through an inspired twist) at a moral test he seems only too eager to fail. The film never lets you get quite comfortable rooting for him. But by the end, it becomes clear that the real hero isn't the Ford character at all, but the woman: Gloria Grahame.
Grahame's Debbie Marsh is one of the key women in film noir, all the more so because her importance in the story isn't immediately apparent. Debbie is a self-described "gangster's girl", sexy, spunky, vulgar, sashaying while she mixes drinks, and a long way from suburbs and aprons. Lang's films often project a sense of mechanical enclosure, but Debbie is the liveliest, most unpredictable thing inside it—the wayward beauty as comic relief instead of femme fatale. And she begins the film, like every female character does, as a bystander. The world of The Big Heat is very much a man's world, and throughout, the women are named by their relationship to men: "Tom Duncan's widow," "Mrs. Bannion," and most of all "Vince Stone's girl." This last epithet is used repeatedly to refer to Debbie, and carries a tart implication. ("I wouldn't touch anything of Vince Stone's with a ten-foot pole," Our Hero growls at Debbie when she signals her availability, to which she replies with a simple, dignified, "That's a rotten thing to say"). In a scene that addresses domestic abuse with startling directness, Debbie admits that Vince has beaten her before, and that she always accepted it. "Why kick?" she asks. "You've got to take the bad with the good."
So as the film's two macho-movie forces butt heads—Glenn Ford v. Lee Marvin!—it makes for a shrewd comment that women are the ones who keep getting caught in the crossfire. In fact, for a genre where the hero is commonly caught, roughed up, knocked out, or interrogated, Bannion himself notably makes it through without a scratch. Yet consider the list of innocent casualties: first a witness named Lucy Chapman (an unattached "B-girl" in love with the dead cop); then Bannion's wife; then a nameless woman in a bar, for no reason other than Vince's cruelty; and finally Debbie herself, in the film's pivotal scene, the scene that can still make an audience gasp. Why kick, indeed.
It's fitting, then, that the story can only be brought into satisfying relief when the woman herself becomes the avenging angel. It is Debbie's revenge, not Bannion's, that pins us to our seats. It is her, not him, who has a moment of genuine self-reflection sitting in the dark, instead of just charging forward. And she, the gangster's girl, already disreputable in the eyes of straight society, fires the film's most crucial bullet and absorbs the moral fall, so Our Hero—our belligerent, self-righteous, monomaniacal hero—can appear at the end and continue to represent truth, justice, and the American way. In the finale, everything is set right again. But so much else has been revealed.
When we credit Lang with helping to modernize commercial cinema, it is not simply a matter of technology or aesthetics, though his early work was certainly trailblazing in both. But rather, Lang's films show a modernist's sense of irony and unreliability: the unreliability of protagonists, of perspectives, and of narratives, none of which can be taken entirely at face value, and all of which have a tendency to shift during his best Hollywood films. The scene of Debbie's revenge is thrillingly, darkly cathartic—but it should frighten the audience as well, because its thrill is so close to making the dark catharsis our own. When the camera catches Lee Marvin, hunched over in pain, lit like a silent horror villain, it is one of Lang's perfect compositions, and for a moment "frightening" and "beautiful" are unified in an unsettling aesthetic order. Lang would go thicker on these formal atmospherics in other Hollywood films; for that, you can and should seek out left-field oddities like Scarlet Street, House By the River, Moonfleet, and Secret Beyond the Door. But never before or since would he make such a taut, propulsive drama, and half a century of declining censorship has done remarkably little to soften its provocations. Indeed, its most shocking moment is only heard, not seen; more explicit images now get broadcast on prime-time TV every night of the week. So if The Big Heat catches you off guard, it may be because showing violence has since become easy and common. Making violence felt is another matter entirely.