Saturday, April 3, 2010

#22: The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)

Released:October 14, 1953

Director: Fritz Lang; Screenplay: Sydney Boehm based on a story by William P. McGivern; Cinematography: Charles Lang; Music: Henry Vars; Producer: Robert Arthur; Studio: Columbia Pictures

Glenn Ford (Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion), Gloria Grahame (Debby Marsh), Lee Marvin (Vince Stone), Jeanette Nolan (Bertha Duncan), Alexander Scourby (Mike Lagana), Jocelyn Brando (Katie Bannion), Adam Williams (Larry), Kathryn Eames (Bannion’s Sister-in-law), Chris Alcaide (George Rose), Peter Whitney (Tierney), Willis Bouchey (Lt. Ted Wilks), Robert Burton (Det. Gus Burke), Howard Wendell (Police Commissioner Holmes), Michael Granger (Hugo), Dorothy Green (Lucy Chapman), Carolyn Jones (Doris), Ric Roman (Baldy), Dan Seymour (Mr. Atkins), Edeith Evanson (Selma Parker)

It is universally accepted that the most important films in the career of legendary director Fritz Lang came in his native Germany. Working for nearly fifteen years in German cinema, Lang mastered silent cinema and early forays into talking pictures. The classics in his filmography from this era alone are enough to make a cineaste salivate – Metropolis, Spione, Die Nibelunge, the Dr. Mabuse films, M, to name just a handful. Historically speaking, by the time that he made it to Hollywood in 1936, his legacy was already so well-established that anything else he did would be the proverbial icing on the cake. Even without any English-speaking films, he would be remembered as an all-time great. Fortunately for noir junkies like myself (and likely everyone else reading this), Lang did not simply live off of his reputation. His influence hangs over nearly all of the genre or style that we know as film noir, and a number of his movies in the 40s and 50s remain part of the noir canon. If, as many contend, he did not approach the greatness of his best German pictures, at the very least it has to be said that he still made a number of outstanding dramas and crime films. And The Big Heat just might be the best film that he ever made in Hollywood. If it isn’t, it is at the very least #2.

The Big Heat is a movie that begins at full-speed and never lets off the throttle. The action starts right away, as within the opening minutes a cop named Duncan blows his brains out in his front parlor. As a parting gift to the world, he leaves behind a note that details the payoff money that he and other officers have been receiving from crime boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). But Duncan’s wife (Jeanette Nolan) finds the note and before contacting authorities about her husband’s suicide, she calls minions of Lagana to try and parlay the incriminating note into a personal payoff. None of this is known to homicide detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) and he begins an investigation that he believes will be a routine suicide. But something doesn’t feel right to him about it all and despite warnings from his superiors to leave it alone, Bannion keeps digging. Soon he uncovers a girlfriend of Duncan’s and continues his inquiry. When the girlfriend (Dorothy Green) turns up murdered soon after speaking with Bannion, he becomes even more suspicious. He wants to pursue things even further but is continually held back by superiors in the police department. When clues begin to point him toward Lagana, Bannion amps up the pressure and confronts the gangster face-to-face. In response, Lagana plants a car bomb intended to kill the detective. Instead, the bomb kills Bannion’s wife (Jocelyn Brando) and sets Det. Bannion off on the ultimate vendetta. Removed from the police force, Bannion pursues Lagana and his minions like Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) for personal vengeance. Eventually teaming with Lagana-Stone gun moll Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), Bannion remains determined to play things out to the dangerous conclusion.

Few directors handled the theme of revenge as well as did Fritz Lang. Both in Germany and in Hollywood, many of his greatest films dealt specifically with characters seeking vengeance. In The Big Heat, though, the obvious question becomes when does a quest for vengeance go too far? Dave Bannion has been hurt as no man should ever be hurt. His wife is murdered, his young daughter left to grow up without a mother. He is justifiably looking to get even. No one could blame him for going on his bloody campaign. But the collateral damage that accumulates in the process is extensive – other lives are lost, for which Bannion seems to have little regard. What makes Bannion’s actions all the more ambiguous is the fact that everyone else in the city appears capable of equal callousness and violence. Does this, in turn, justify whatever Bannion has to do to Lagana and his gang? It seems admirable to dismantle the Lagana organization, but it seems odd for a former by-the-book investigator to suddenly turn into a ruthless vigilante. And perhaps that is what is to be taken from the tale. In The Big Heat, Lang creates a world in which a very thin line separates the honorable and principled in society from the most ruthless. They are all connected in some way. Even more importantly, Lang shows how quickly one can appear to move from one side of that line to the other. Bannion, once a hard-working detective, quickly transfers that same doggedness and determination to his vendetta.

Earlier in the week, I admitted that Glenn Ford was not the strongest actor of his day, but Dave Bannion is probably his most exemplary performance. He gives Bannion the right amount of menacing attitude without going too over the top. The real standout performances come from those on the other side of the law, meaning Lee Marvin and especially Gloria Grahame. Marvin is the tough guy who thinks he will do anything to prove his worth to Mr. Lagana, although when he comes face-to-face with Bannion he sheepishlky backs down. Grahame, meanwhile, is a wisecracking dame who stays with boyfriend Vince because it allows her to drink and shop nonstop. Grahame steals every scene that she is in, and in my opinion, manages to turn Debby into the hero of the film.


  1. Dave, here's where I learned to respect Glenn Ford. After this I found other good performances, particularly in westerns like 3:10 to Yuma, The Violent Men and Cowboy. He's just part of a great ensemble here, and I agree with you about Grahame stealing it. This film's high place in the noir canon is indisputable.

  2. Dave, Certainly one of the greats of noir. Like you, I always felt Ford was a limited actor but I have enjoyed many of his movies like this one and others. Grahame is just wonderful here and Lee Marvin give us one of his great 1950's supporting roles here.

  3. Dave, wonderful piece on one of my all-time favorites, too! I completely agree with all that you say here. Great post!

  4. This is my favorite Hollywood Lang, and a film I have praised for many years with intense enthusiasm. This will rank even higher with me, but who could argue with #22. It's getting to th epoint of semantics now. You've framed this film's artistry superbly here, and yes Dave Bannion is unquestionable Glenn Ford's one single moment in the sun. Buffo opening, great dialogue, pacing and terrific handling of the revenge theme. As others here note, Ms. Graham is stupendous too. I really love this film!

    Your inspiration Dave is contagious. I actually stayed home last night and watched som emovies with my cousin, one of which was a re-viewing of BRUTE FORCE, which I haven't watched in years. It held up beautifully, as per your own stellar assessment!

  5. I agree with everybody else here -- definitely of the best Lang works. And Glenn Ford shines here. Gloria Grahame is an actress that should be on everybody's list of All-Time Favorites, and she is definitely on mine.

  6. I always felt that The Big Heat and Scarlet Street were as good and could stand along side Lang's German movies. To be honest I would rate them top 3 with M when it comes to Fritz's filmography. Everyone else has already praised the greatness of this film and who could argue. There are no flaws and its so well made. The scene with Bannion and his wife having dinner effectively shows a wonderful personal moment. The eventual murder really packs a jolt that feels almost modern in its effect. Debby is also the most unique femme fatale. Her conversion from gangster moll to hero is a glorious twist that adds to this films greatness.....M.Roca

  7. M. Roca, you've ignited my "list" fire again! LOL! Here is my proposal for Lang's 10 greatest films in numerical order. Perhaps some others may want to take the plunge, but if not, no problem. Geez, it's Easter weekend.

    1 M
    2 Die Niebelungen
    3 The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
    4 The Big Heat
    5 Metropolis
    6 Man Hunt
    7 You Only Live Once
    8 Scarlett Street
    9 Spione
    10 Woman in the Window

  8. Ok here I go....

    1. M
    2. Scarlet Street
    3. The Big Heat
    4. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
    5. Metropolis
    6. Destiny
    7. Die Niebelungen
    7. Woman In The Window
    8. While The City Sleeps
    9. Clash By Night
    10. Dr Mabuse, The Gambler

    I must admit I have never seen Spione or Woman in the Moon.

  9. ^........M.Roca

  10. DESTINY was my #11, but it's an excellent choice M. Roca, as are your No 8 and 9.

  11. I don't feel like I've seen enough of Lang's German films to make a decent list. A quick Top 5 would look something like this:

    1. M
    2. Scarlet Street (no great revelation... you all know its going to be in the countdown)
    3. The Big Heat
    4. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
    5. Clash by Night

  12. Samuel - Yes, I think Ford was solid enough... not to the level of some of the greats of the era, but far from mediocre.

    John - Grahame really is a force in this one - and really in a number of other classic noirs.

    Jeffrey - I know your love of this one based on your selection of it as your top movie of 1953. It's definitely worth of such a selection.

    Sam - Great to hear that some of these reviews have you rewatching some of these greats! I take it as high praise when I might have had a hand in keeping the hard-driving Sam Juliano away from the theater on a weekend! (LOL!) Brute Force was a great choice, definitely one of Dassin's best.

    Quirky Character - I agree completely about Grahame.

    M.Roca - Our lists for the work of Lang are similar. I agree that this and Scarlet Street are his best American efforts.

  13. Love this film! Loved Lang's depiction of Ford's domestic life, too...the conversations with his wife and daughter brilliantly put through the fun-house mirror in later conversations with Gloria Grahame (unforgettable here) or between Grahame and her mob-lover. The coffee throwing scene is one of the best in any noir film.

    And while we're talking about Lang's Hollywood work...I can't believe no one has mentioned FURY. It's one of my favorite Lang films -- and I think THE BIG HEAT would be #2 behind that when it comes to his American works.

  14. A Lang list? Sure!

    1. Die Niebelungen
    2. M
    3. Fury
    4. Metropolis
    5. While the City Sleeps
    6. Testament of Dr. Mabuse
    7. The Big Heat
    8. 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
    9. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt
    10. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

  15. Fritz Lanzmovies are so cool despite he was a complete fascist!