The Big Heat
Director: Fritz Lang
“Someone’s going to pay….because he forgot to kill me.”
Directed by Fritz Lang (known for his seminal thriller ‘M’), The Big Heat centres around a police sergeant named Dave Bannion, who begins an investigation into the alleged suicide of a fellow officer, Tom Duncan. After making contact with Duncan’s mistress, she is later found brutally murdered and Duncan is warned anonymously, as well as by the ‘powers that be’ to stay off the case, with the latest death passed off as the routine killing of a bar fly female. Undeterred, Bannion continues to investigate until, in return, his wife is killed in a car bomb intended for himself, leaving him and his young daughter alone. Unsurprisingly, this spurns Bannion into a deeper investigation, uncovering a deep chain of blackmail and corruption involving city police and a pair of high-level mafia bosses.
Whilst starting as a standard police procedural/detective plot, the film moves quickly into a story of revenge, as Bannion fights to uncover the conspiracy surrounding the mafia and the events that led to his wife’s death, as well as the suicide of Tom Duncan. Also involved is the character of Debby (Gloria Grahame, known for previous noirs including In a Lonely Place and Crossfire), the mistress of one of the mob’s head enforcer, Vince Stone (perfectly played by Lee Marvin). After a particularly brutal fight scene involving a put of scalding coffee, Debby’s face is irreparably scarred, leading to an alliance between Bannion and herself, in her own quest for revenge. Together, she and Bannion unravel the layers of blackmail binding the police and mafia together, ripe and ready for exposure to bring the titular ‘big heat’ down on the corrupt institutions ruling the city.
Glen Ford takes the lead as Dave Bannion, in a role which is well-suited to him as he has a brilliant no-nonsense attitude about him, which fits the nature of his character. The earlier, happy family scenes between him and his wife (played by Jocelyn Brando) are a nice touch and there is a good chemistry between the two.
The plot may not sound the most original, but it unfolds brilliantly under Lang’s direction, and some of the scenes are quite jarring, and extremely violent when judging by 1953’s standards – the scene of boiling coffee being thrown against Debby’s face off-camera is jarring and quite brutal. The scene of the killing of Bannion’s wife is also well done and quite emotional, since much time is spent beforehand establishing the happy family unit Bannion had for himself, only for it to be ripped away from him. The film’s gangland villains are entertaining and provoking in equal measure. The relationship between the two is somewhat reminiscent of the one that existed between Whit Sterling and Joe Stefanos in Out of the Past.
The Big Heat is often considered one of the seminal films of the noir era, and it certainly lives up to its reputation. It’s a relentless and at times quite a shocking tale of mob rule and inner-city corruption, driven by an excellent cast and some truly memorable scenes, both for their violence as well as their emotional weight. It’s a perfect tale of revenge and corruption.