The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat is a 1954 film noir by Fritz Lang, starring Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin. 

The many themes of cop life and criminal life are present, but the script of William P. McGivern's 1953 book called for some family life too; which is always a foreign presence in film noir.

Usually, if a Mr and Mrs are sitting down to a home cooked steak, and the baby girl is playing nearby, something may be afoot. The family is the unseen locus of much of film noir.

Here, Mr and Mrs Cop are seen at home perhaps a little too much; and its a signal that bad things are a-coming.

Although there are spoilers all across this website, a special SPOILER ALERT need be issued for Fritz Lang's 1953 noir, The Big Heat.

It isn't so much around the ending or the way things work out, its just that the likely most significant thing which takes this almost lackadaisical Langian noir out of the realms of the mere crime film en passant, is what happens at home, and the tragedy that befalls that home.  

The domestic realm is always of interest in film noir. In the 1950s there is something quite specific about the household and domesticity. It's still a man's realm in all respects, although the women are always placed there to work.

In The Big Heat Glenn Ford grips his wife's arm to pull her in for a friendly kiss, before they return to that comfortable aspirational set-up. This is the counter to the  crooked society and corrupt system in which he works, in which the mob, the commissioner, the police, and everyday citizens are all somehow perverted towards the bad. A part of the price that must be paid to find justice is his own law-abiding principles, and the grim nature of this noir dictates that must resort to the unlawful tactics of the hoodlums and enlist the help of one of the gangs' molls, femme fatale (Gloria Grahame), in order to exact his revenge.

It's for that reason that we see so much goodie-goodie wholesome home-time down-time love-in stuff, and the great news too is that it is all courtesy of Marlon Brando's sister, actress Jocelyn Brando.

Coming back to that later, The Big Heat is a slightly peculiar filler-thriller in the 1940s and 1950s film noir sequence. Despite this being Fritz Lang, known for the dark plays of psychology and dream or indeed nightmare, across the black and white screen, this is peculiar addition to the cycle. It certainly has a great performance from Lee Marvin, and Glenn Ford is probably at his toughest here also.

Gangster in pyjamas - c'est noir in The Big Heat (1953)

Gloria Grahame reclining in The Big Heat (1953)

But is Glenn Ford a tough guy?  Hard to say, even though as an actor he is committed to the violence, and does it well. Menace is another thing, and Lee Marvin and even Gloria Grahame can muster that

The Big Heat is not bleak, and nor is it tough, dark or psychologically facing down mid-Century paranoia, as only the medium of film noir can. Despite this, a couple of separate elements, which include the violence, tip this procedural studio picture out of the crime genre, and into the realms of noir.

Smooth noir - Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953)

Tense noir - Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (1953)

Similar darkly themed Hollywood gangster films of the 1950s made shocking public revelations about corruption, and made an effort to raise the question of the control of organised crime syndicates running American cities included:

  • Bretaigne Windust's The Enforcer (1951), a police noir
  • Robert Wise's The Captive City (1952)
  • Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential (1952)
  • Joseph Lewis' The Big Combo (1955)
  • Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955)
  • Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

Dark communication in The Big Heat (1953)

There's heat in The Big Heat (1953) - flames and coffee.

The Big Heat does offer a reasonable round-up of film noir celebrities, what you might bastions of the style if you will. This not only includes Fritz Lang, but Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford, both of whom turn up once more in Fritz Lang's Human Desire, in 1954.

But when does a crime film or thriller become a film noir? There is a tendency across lists such as the Wikipedia list of film noir, to cite everything that is a crime film in the 1940s and 1950s to be catalogued as film noir. But it ain't so. There may have to be an element of fate and there may have to be a weakened male lead, or a femme fatale, to make a crime film a film noir.

Elements that place The Big Heat (1953) in the film noir canon include the corporate nature of crime, and its infiltration across wider society; the unpleasant and sudden nature of the violence, most of which is often unfair; and the characters lost in their desires and weaknesses.

Gloria Grahame boozing in The Big Heat (1953)

Lee Marvin, sudden violence in The Big Heat (1953)

Adam Williams, indecisive young hood in The Big Heat (1953)

In The Big Heat we have crime and cops, for sure, and something of a rogue cop too in the form of good guy Glenn Ford. Not enough to call film noir! perhaps? There is a variety of femme fatale in Gloria Grahame's character, Debby Marsh; but because of her drinking Debby is really only a danger to herself, and not threatening any of the men with losing control of their wits, in order to please her; all it takes is a cocktail, as we see, several times.

The procedural elements of The Big Heat are kept to a minimum, but still important to the overall structure; so of anything at all is to be said to be truly film noir about The Big Heat, it is probably the suggestion of corporate crime.

Alexander Scourby and crime boss Mike Lagana in The Big Heat (1953)

Lee Marvin, cruelty to dames in The Big Heat (1953)

While corporate crime is not thought of as an staple of the film noir style, it is still something that begins to appear more regularly as a bad penny in the 1950s. The same evolution had taken place in American life, since organised crime became a popular public theme in both the news and the movies, following prohibition which lasted form 1920 to 1933 in the USA.

During that time, organised crime came together with the movies to cerate new types of heroes, anti-heroes and stories. With World War 2, organised crime subsided into political organisation, and while some movies likened Nazism to a form of organised crime, both corporate life and organised crime had merged into various new sets of institutions by the 1950s.

Lonesome firearm in The Big Heat (1953)

Fritz Lang's film The Big Heat portrays a dark and violent world of organized crime and police corruption in a fictional American city. The film is a classic example of film noir, a genre that is characterized by its themes of cynicism, fatalism, and a sense of moral ambiguity.

The film's central character is Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (played by Glenn Ford), who sets out to expose a corrupt and violent underworld in his city after the apparent suicide of a fellow officer. The investigation leads him to a ruthless gangster named Mike Lagana (played by Alexander Scourby) and his enforcer Vince Stone (played by Lee Marvin).

One of the central themes of the film is the link between violence and organized crime. The film portrays the violent and brutal methods used by the criminal organizations to maintain their power and control over the city. For example, early in the film, we see a young woman named Lucy Chapman (played by Dorothy Green) murdered by a bomb placed in her car by Stone, who was attempting to intimidate her husband, a potential witness against the gangsters. The murder is particularly brutal, as it takes place off-screen and we only see the aftermath of the explosion. This use of violence to silence potential witnesses and intimidate the public is a hallmark of organized crime.

The film also highlights the close connections between organized crime and the police force. We see a number of corrupt officers who are willing to work with the gangsters to maintain their power and profit from their criminal activities. For example, Bannion's former partner, Tom Duncan (played by Jocelyn Brando), is revealed to have been on Lagana's payroll and actively involved in covering up his criminal activities. This corruption within the police force only serves to reinforce the power and influence of the criminal underworld.

In conclusion, Fritz Lang's The Big Heat is a classic example of film noir that explores the dark world of organized crime and police corruption. The film portrays the violence and brutality used by criminal organizations to maintain their power and control over the city, and highlights the connections between organized crime and the police force. The film remains a powerful and influential work that continues to be studied and analyzed for its complex themes and messages.

Things Heat up Big at Wikipedia

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