The Big Heat (1953)
*This review of The Big Heat contains spoilers*
Fritz Lang was one of the major Noir architects. His early films in Germany during the expressionist period not only influenced his later work in Hollywood, but many other directors who used Metropolis, M and his Mabuse series as templates for lighting, design as well as the fatalist themes that became standard noir devices.
An argument could be made that Lang struggled with the themes of good and evil all his life after his career was impacted by Germany’s political shift. For a time, he and his first wife Thea von Harbou were members of the Nazi party, as were many of the German elite, before the true motives of Hitler and his Final Solution were made apparent. He hastily fled the country when Goebbels offered him the highest position as Head of Motion Picture Propaganda, knowing his life would be forever changed for the worse. As many German refugees (Wilder, Lubitsch, etc.) made the trek to America, they mourned the loss of the Fatherland. Lang, however, seemed to be fascinated with the dual motives inside himself, and of the German people, for the rest of his life.
The Big Heat is one of his greatest American works, not only for its stark and unsparing look at revenge, but its illustration of violence, evil and obsession, and surprisingly, much like Metropolis, examines duality, and the forces that wrestle for control within us all.
From the opening “over-the-shoulder” image of a man shooting himself in the head and the cold reaction from his wife upon discovering the body, we know we are in for some primal themes. Contrast this scene with the saccharine, painfully sweet lovefest between Police Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) and his wife (Jocelyn Brando) that makes Leave It to Beaver and Donna Reed seem downright bland, and it’s clear Director Lang is about to destroy this semblance of “50s normality.”
Lang motivates his protagonist in The Big Heat, raising the stakes exponentially, by killing that which he holds most dear, sending him on a violent revenge streak, and somewhat subversively, questions which character is the real societal intruder? Is it Mike Lagana, the Mob Boss who has the city under his thumb, yet working like a well-oiled machine, or Bannion, the cop who chooses to work outside this pragmatic, if unethical system? A cursory examination would side with Bannion, and like later 1970s antiheroes, root for the end result, by whatever means it takes the protagonist to get there. Bannion’s objective is not to enforce the law, but exact his own brand of justice.
It’s clear Bannion has two distinct personalities. At home, he’s a smiling, lovesick and dutiful husband, but the moment he’s “on the job,” he’s terse, cold and unflinching, with shades of repulsion for the characters he’s forced to work with. You could make an argument that he’s just a man at odds with his career. But we know from his conversations with his wife, he loves his job, and he loves the law. What he hates are spineless people who won’t stand up for what’s right. He continues to refer to his boss, the Lieutenant, as well as the bystanders who allow innocent people to die, as “…scared rabbits.” So in a way, his job allows him to act out the latent sadistic, sociopathic elements of his personality. And when his wife dies in a car bomb intended for him, the imbalance between his two personalities is lost; the angry sadist spills over and pollutes his soul.
Lagana is also a man with two personalities, but he’s found a way for them both to coexist. When Bannion confronts the crime boss about intimidating his wife, Lagana is more incensed that the offending sergeant has “tracked dirt” into his house. He would’ve preferred Bannion had brought this business to Lagana’s office. He clearly understands he must work with undesirable elements (cops who can’t be bought), but unlike Bannion, prefers this side of himself be revealed only during regular work hours. Bannion asks Lagana how many flowers he can plant to “kill the stink” of his crimes – an affront to Lagana’s success at separating his corrupt business practices from his idealistic home life.
Later, when Lagana is discussing business with his henchmen, he is disgusted by the “street talk” between them. He still keeps up the artifice of being an ethical, almost prude, family man. (These elements would be used to even greater effect in The Godfather, where crime boss Don Corleone respects a man who understands family come first, and does dark business in his office, during his daughter’s wedding, taking place right outside.)
As Lagana and Bannion portray two mirror opposites, so do their “gangs.” Lagana’s team includes not only his goons, but the police, the city fathers and almost everyone else. Bannion, then has to “turn” some of these same people to his side, the side of “good,” as only Bannion can define it. His team, then, is less trustworthy with a more questionable allegiance. His greatest ally, surprisingly, becomes gun moll Debby Marsh (a terrific Gloria Grahame), after being disfigured by head henchman Lee Marvin.
Both Marvin and Grahame are the real standout performances. Marvin had been kicking around in small supporting roles in TV and film until he came exploding onto the screen in The Big Heat. His raw energy and unpredictable violent nature deliver such intensity that whatever strategy he takes, from scene to scene, he’s both believable and disturbing. The boiling coffee splash on Grahame, one of the most iconic film noir scenes, is a realistic reaction to Marvin feeling immasculated by Grahame’s constant belittling comments.
Grahame, fresh off her Oscar win as an unscrupulous writer’s wife in The Bad and the Beautiful is even more impressive here as the entertaining but cynical gun moll who shares Bannion’s taste for vengeance. As with all the other women, she must perish as yet another “agent” in Bannion’s quest for self-satisfaction.
What’s even more surprising about The Big Heat is its taut, 90 minute running time. The story moves at a brisk clip, stopping only to illustrate the uncomfortable sweetness of Bannion’s home life, which is essential to meditate on, given its revealing counterpoint to the man he is about to become.
A good story is about the ending, and The Big Heat has a doozy. Again, in Lang’s subversive style, it would seem Bannion has somehow found balance. He’s lost everything, but he still has his job as a policeman. The bigger question Lang asks and subtly answers is, within his two personalities, which one has won? Glenn Ford’s enigmatic half-smile, his quiet yet coiled demeanor reflects the answer, and it’s not a happy one.
Brimming with symbolism, incredible mis en scene and crackling hardboiled dialogue, The Big Heat is essential viewing for lovers of noir and the genius of Fritz Lang.