The Big Heat

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Fritz Lang's The Big Heat is a dark, tough noir, an intense crime thriller that moves at an unrelentingly brisk pace as it delves fearlessly into the darkness of its story. It is a remarkably adult film, never wincing away from the seedy truths at its core, and for the Hollywood of its era — even in the gritty world of the noir — it especially stands out. Its dialogue is taut and punchy, dealing candidly with this world of corruption, adultery, death and disfigurement, and the sad fate of "that kind of girl." The film focuses on the scrupulously honest cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a guy with such a highly developed sense of morality that he never thinks twice about doing the right thing. When the suicide of a highly positioned police officer starts stirring up some ugly suspicions, Bannion charges into the middle of the case, even when it becomes apparent that there are some very powerful people above him who would like the whole matter to be put to rest as quickly and cleanly as possible. Bannion can't go along with that. He's got a kind of brute force morality that drives him forward, pushing at the people who'd like him to simply go away — including the dead cop's widow, Mrs. Duncan (Jeanette Nolan) and the gangster Lagana (Alexander Scourby), a powerful man with connections that run deep into the police force. Bannion doesn't have the smarts to conduct his investigation quietly or subtly, so he just keeps forcing himself on underworld contacts and on Lagana himself until someone decides he needs to be dealt with.

Bannion is setting himself up for tragedy, and of course he gets it. The film goes to some very dark places, but before it does, Lang takes pains to establish the stakes for Bannion: a very happy home life with a lovely wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando), and a daughter. The early scenes of Bannion and his wife at home create a contrast against the darkness and corruption he encounters at work. Bannion is scraping by on a cop's salary, always conscious of the tight budget his family has to maintain, and his conversations with his wife about money set him apart from the dead Duncan, who'd transcended his cop's salary by serving on a criminal's payroll, at least until his conscience caught up with him. Moreover, the scenes between Bannion and Katie serve as a tonal contrast; these scenes are syrupy and romantic, dripping with pathos and big goopy closeups, and the bright, clean light of the Bannions' home makes it look like a cheery sitcom set as opposed to all the shadowy hotel rooms and seedy bars where the corrupt and the crooked do their deals. The couple has a light, flirtatious relationship, rooted in concrete details like Katie's habit of taking a sip of her husband's beer or polishing off his whiskey, or their gentle sparring and coded sexual banter as she prepares dinner. Their romance is pure and good, but it's obvious from the beginning that Lang is establishing this foundation for Bannion only in order to disrupt it in some way.

When the disruption finally comes, it's one of the film's most chilling scenes, a shattering break in this domestic bliss that comes just as Bannion is telling a story to his daughter. The remainder of the film ventures even further into darkness, as Bannion becomes obsessed with breaking up the ring of corruption in his city, following the chain of crime towards the men who pull the strings from behind the scenes. He particularly becomes concerned with Lagana's right-hand man, Vince (Lee Marvin), a sociopathic tough guy who takes his anger out on women more often than not. Vince has a bouncy, cheery good-time girl, Debby (Gloria Grahame), who drunkenly mocks Vince's eager obedience to Lagana, but is still happy to profit off the illegal gains from her man's shady activities.

Like so many of the best noirs, The Big Heat is about pain and rage, about revenge and justice. Lang focuses intently on both the violence and its ugly consequences, particularly when the psychopathic Vince goes too far with Debby. Vince is a brutish character, played with chilly intensity by Marvin, whose tight-lipped, stony expression perfectly captures the casually sociopathic violence of this killer. In one crucial scene, Vince utterly loses his cool and assaults Debby with a coffee pot, perhaps a nod to Raymond Burr in a similarly unhinged performance in Anthony Mann's Raw Deal.

Grahame is even better as the hard-drinking party girl who's eventually forced to sober up and face the ugly reality of the life she'd been living. As with the use of Bannion's relationship with his wife, Lang develops a contrast between the playfulness of Debby and the crude nastiness of Vince. There's also a contrast between Debby in the first half of the film and the increasingly pained, pathetic Debby in the second half of the film. Debby goes from a character of light — dancing around in Vince's well-lit apartment, cracking jokes and admiring herself in a mirror — to a woman who's afraid of the light, who wants to hide in the shadows instead. The film cleverly exploits these dichotomies between dark and light, and it's especially interesting that Lang reverses the motif for Debby. When she's in the light, she's living a corrupt life as a thug's moll, enjoying her decadent ease with dirty money paying for her shopping trips and keeping her supplied with liquor. It's only when she's swallowed up in shadows that she sees things with some clarity. It's fitting, then, that she spends the second half of the film divided in half, her face half-covered with a white bandage, the other half of her face often bathed in the richly textured shadows of Lang's images. Debby is divided between a fun, mostly carefree past that now seems lost forever, and the knowledge of the ugliness on which that life had been built.

The Big Heat is a powerful film, a stark examination of the tremendous difficulty of maintaining honor and morality in a corrupt world — an examination of the risks of speaking truth to power, and the slim rewards. In the film's final scene, Bannion has returned to the daily routine of police investigation. There is no glory, no real reward, only the resumption of relative normality, minus the horrible costs he'd already paid. That's part of what makes the film so bracing and affecting and even, despite its glossy aesthetics, somewhat realistic in its portrayal of corruption and the cost of honesty.