“Lang’s almost musical control of violence deferred both apprehension and catharsis” –Carlos Clarens
“The “heat” in this instance is the appalling cruelty; but the “big heat” is criminal slang for a large-scale investigation and an allusion to the hellish state of the city.” —David Thomson
The Big Heat (1953) is perhaps one of Fritz Lang’s most violent noirs. It is an explosive noir masterpiece filled with striking images of the urban milieu that is often the site of Lang’s allegorical urban war. But here there are also themes of revenge, obsession, sexual hostility, and corruption. The nightmare exposed as realism in the everyday spaces of the city.
“Violence is the most consistent motif in the film noir; virtually no noir is without it. Its importance is complicated and often explained in sociological terms to justify its aesthetic power. As a statement in itself, violence in noir cinema a distinctive use. Whereas its purpose in the pure gangster film has often been to explain the sociopathic breeding and greed of thuggish personalities who reach power and control, violence in the noir is less explicable and more arbitrary less a matter of historical cause and effect than an unexpected and intense exercise of rage. […] The Big Heat—each has moments of violence that jar us by their cold-bloodedness, occasionally terrify us in their perverseness. suggest a darker cruel impulse.”
—From Violence In The Noir Street With No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir by Andrew Dickos
The film’s cold dimensions come from Sidney Boehm’s script (based on the novel by William P. McGivern) which conveys perhaps the most ferocious rage in the noir canon. It opens with a gunshot. A corrupt police records sergeant, Tom Duncan, blows his brains out, leaving a suicide note which reveals how gangster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) —a first-generation immigrant— has risen to power, holding the city in the clutches of highly organized criminals. Just as Homicide Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is a working class family man, Lagana is an upper-class family man, worshiping the memory of his mother and doting on his daughter. In contrast, Lagana made his money through shady dealings. Duncan’s suicide sets forth a chain of events in where the narrative of the film pivots on it’s violence.
Duncan’s widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) shows no emotion over her dead husband’s lifeless body and stashes the letter. She telephones Lagana, cleverly signaling the implications of her husband’s suicide. Now that she possesses evidence that can expose the syndicate boss who runs the city from his palatial mansion, Bertha proceeds to blackmail Lagana. She is thinking of providing for herself a better lifestyle than a cop’s salary.
When Bannion comes to the door she must pretend to be the grieving widow. Bertha gazes at herself in the mirror, the camera holding mirrors in the background as symbols of deceit. And it’s a premonition of Bannion’s fractured morality as he is about to go on a mission of retaliation. The noir iconography of mirrors depicts duplicity and fragmentation. Charles Lang’s cinematography transforms the ordinary environment, texturing it with anxiety.
Lagana lives against skyscrapers and a starry city night scene, but in his home, there are antiques and expensive artwork, a hive of servants, and classical music: this riles Bannion. “Cops have homes, too. Only sometimes there isn’t enough money to pay the rent, because an honest cop gets hounded off the force by your thievin’ cockroaches for tryin’ to do an honest job.”
Bannion refuses to drop the investigation into Duncan’s suicide. His domestic bliss is shattered when his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) first gets an obscene call. This leads him right to the door of Lagana’s opulent home to threaten him. When Bannion insults Lagana’s pride, he plants a bomb in Bannion’s car that accidentally kills his wife. The violent act itself happens offscreen, but the brutal aftermath of such evil becomes the center of the film, a cautionary tale of human behavior and corruption.
The film juxtaposes scenes of the domestic innocence of Bannion’s family yet with the explosive violence he is capable of when he is driven to bring people down. He’s transformed into an avenging angel. He goes on a personal crusade against Lagana, resigning from the force after he’s warned by corrupt Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell) to lay off. He tosses his badge, but not his .38, simmering “That (gun) doesn’t belong to the department, I bought it.”
Bannion’s life is now bleak with his private war to expose Lagana’s grip on the city and the corruption within the police. He leaves the wholesome suburban home he shared with his wife, now empty except for his daughter’s baby carriage in a barren room. With no future before him, he leaves his former home without a trace of his once blissful life.
It is this desolation that springs the violence to come. Bannion rampages through the screen, threatening and intimidating poker-playing bullies as he invades with vigilante fantasy Lagana’s corrupt landscape. Bannion, once an average man, turned into the bitter vision of a noir hero who is being pushed to his capacity for violence. Bannion becomes obsessed with vengeance against the Syndicate boss and his chief thug, the sadistic Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). He roughs up hired gunman (Adam Williams), just short of killing him.
Bannion hunts down Duncan’s mistress, a B-girl Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) who knows where the bodies are buried and she tries to salvage Duncan’s reputation. But Bannion accuses her of “a shakedown,” walking out of the bar feeling morally superior to Lucy.
She is found the next day outside of town, tortured and murdered by sadistic criminals. The brutal murder takes place off-camera but we still hear the horrifying account in the coroner’s report. The morgue attendant asks “You saw those cigarette burns on her body?”, “Yeah, I saw them. Every single one of them.” As he crushes his cigarette into the ashtray, a nod to his culpability in her death.
Hirsch claims that few film noirs can or even try to sustain the pitch of these intensely violent moments. “These privileged moments are isolated from the rest of the films in which they occur by their special intensity but not by their content: the best film noir thrillers ‘earn’ and can absorb these moments of visual and theatrical virtuosity; the violence and mania that are highlighted in these passages of kinky vaudevillian cinema flow directly from the noir milieu.” – From Film Noir The Dark Side of the Screen by Foster Hirsch
Vicious Vince Stone, a vicious deranged hoodlum who gets off on torturing women, using one of them as an ashtray, burning a cigarette into a barfly Doris’ (Carolyn Jones) hand — a disquieting show of cruelty. Gloria Grahame is sexy, incendiary, and delightful as Stone’s girl, Debbie Marsh. Debbie is a smart-mouthed girl drifting amid the macho posturing of the gang. She becomes an ally of Bannion’s after she realizes her life palling around with criminals is aimless and dangerous. Bannion gives her a gun for protection, “the big heat falls for Lagana, for Stone, and all the rest of the lice.” The big heat purifies Debbie and Bannion in the climax.
As Debbie, Gloria Grahame possesses a sharp wit, moral ambiguity (half of her face is covered with bandages, two distinct profiles she presents), and enigmatic sensuality. “I’ll have to go through life sideways…” “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” Looking around Ford’s hotel room, “I like this. Early nothing.” Debbie’s a positive counterpoint to the materialistic middle-class Mrs. Duncan, who pushed for her husband to lie down with Lagana, and eventually, kill himself.
Debbie becomes Bannion’s agent of death, blasting open the whole corrupt system. She shoots Bertha Duncan at the same desk her husband committed suicide. In this pivotal moment, she exposes the depth of evil in the narrative by handing over the suicide letter.
Just before Debbie shoots Bertha, “You know Bertha, we’re sisters under the mink.” Hailing from the gutter, Debbie’s only complicity with Bertha and her corruption is that they share the same symbol of greed and luxury. And they are both marked for a fall and a noir fate.
The Big Heat has some of the most virulently aggressive attitudes and scenes, not least of which is the iconic moment when Lee Marvin splashes a scalding hot pot of coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face, scarring her for what’s left of her life on screen. After she is savagely injured when in a jealous rage, Debbie retaliates at her ex-boyfriend by scalding his face the same way. In the escalating crescendo of Debbie’s dramatic demise, Vince shoots her in the stomach. Debby dies looking for love and approval from Bannion, her gruesome scars are obscured by her beloved mink coat. As she dies, she is redeemed and her morality is restored.
Toward the end, Bannion can’t look at Debbie’s face until their one intimate moment before she dies. He confesses wanting to kill Bertha Duncan, acknowledging his rage and finally seeing her in himself. The shadow patterns projected onto them by the window suggest a symmetry in their relationship. Bannion maintains his moral superiority and doesn’t submit to his murderous temptations.
All of the women in Bannion’s life meet with a tragic end. Bannion is unselfconscious of the victims he leaves in the wake of his mission. Most are women, with four dying violent deaths during the film, suggestive of Lang’s streak of misogyny.
“Lang’s almost musical control of violence deferred both apprehension and catharsis. Quiet, intimate moments were invested with characteristic threat through the intrusion in the frame of a lampshade or even a potted plant, empty rooms seemed to lie in wait for people. The tension was so expertly set up that when the picture finally let go with the violence, the viewer was ready—indeed rooting—for it.” — From Crime Movies by Carlos Clarens