It’s taken me a long time to figure out why I don’t love Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. It’s a good movie, and its noir bona fides are beyond question. Somehow, though, it has just never struck me as being quite the masterpiece it’s been made out to be by some people.
You can certainly see why the film is so highly regarded. It tells the story of an honest police sergeant named Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is investigating the suicide of another cop. The dead cop, it turns out, was mixed up with some highly placed criminals, including Mike Lagana (sleazy Alexander Scourby) and his psychotic henchman Vince Stone (hyper-sleazy Lee Marvin). When Bannion gets too close to their operation, they plant a bomb in his car that accidently kills Bannion’s wife (Jocelyn Brando). Bannion swears revenge and starts smashing his way up the criminal food chain until he finds the men who killed his wife. He’s helped along the way by Vince Stone’s disenchanted girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), but when Vince finds out about Debby’s betrayal he throws a scalding pot of coffee in her face. Vince will live to regret he did that.
Fritz Lang directed the film in high style, and many people consider it his noir masterpiece (though I've always been partial to Scarlet Street). Now, as a human being, Fritz Lang was pretty much a son of a bitch, and as an artist he pretty much presented a son of a bitch’s view of the world. His noir work—indeed, most of his work—is notable for its unforgiving, violent view of human nature. In Lang’s films, people are selfish, mean, and naturally given to violence. If the scenes of Bannion’s idyllic home life seem too good to be true, it might be because Lang thought they were. Of course, the real reason these scenes exist is to create a contrast with Bannion’s job, a job that requires him to leave his home in the middle of the night and go to a nightclub to meet a woman who claims she was the dead cop’s mistress. This contrast, however, only works up to a point because the scenes with Bannion and his wife and daughter are so forced and gooey. The film seems particularly at a loss as to how to deal with the daughter. Once her mother is dead, the little girl seems totally unfazed. To cover this, we’re told that she thinks her mother is “away on a trip.” Really? I mean, the family car exploded outside her bedroom window. Her father is anguished. They have to move out of their home and into a hotel. And she’s still jumping into his arms and asking for bedtime stories? Kids in noirs are generally stupid, but Bannion’s daughter is may well be their idiot queen.
If Lang seems uncomfortable in the domestic scenes, he hits his stride once Bannion sets out to get revenge on the crooks who killed his wife. Lang was a master of mood and action, and this film has all the atmosphere and ass-kicking you could want out of a classic film noir. It has a surprising sexuality, too. The scene where Bannion takes Debby up to his hotel room to talk has an unmistakable sexual pull. She kneels on the bed and more or less offers to sleep with him. He’s having none of it. All he wants is to mess up the crooks who killed his wife. The Big Heat has a brilliantly simple conceit at its center: a cop loses his wife and is left with nothing else but being a cop. The film’s abrupt final scene sets this theme down in stone. The film, as many people have noted, really set the standard for Dirty Harry and all the righteous renegade cop movies that came after it. Notice how Bannion addresses every criminal in the movie by the pejorative “thief”—as in “You’re outta business, thief.” Listen to how Ford spits out that word and you can hear the embryo of Eastwood’s “Well, do ya, punk?”
Ford, an underrated participant in so many noirs (including Human Desire, with Grahame and Lang again), is excellent here. His everyman face belied an intrinsically introspective quality as an actor, and here he seems to be imploding with rage. Likewise, Grahame is perfectly cast as the floozy girlfriend who doesn’t realize that her good luck and easy life have already come to an end. She spends the last third of the movie with her face half-concealed in bandages, and the scenes where she sets out to get her revenge—armed with a mink coat, a gun, and a boiling pot of coffee—are classic.
And yet, the last half of the movie always disappoints me. These scenes lack a payoff for Bannion’s hunt for the killers. I always forget exactly who killed his wife and what happens to the killer in the end (he’s just a punk who’s killed, off screen, by Stone and his thugs). Lagana, the crime lord, is busted off screen. That leaves Stone, the coffee-tossing psycho played by Marvin, to bear the brunt of the retribution. Yet, what leads up to this? The timing of the final confrontation seems arbitrary, and besides, Stone’s comeuppance comes at the hands of Debby. That’s as it should be considering what Debby’s been through, but what happened to Bannion’s obsessive quest to avenge his wife? The movie is over before it seems to finish.
I suspect that some people would argue that The Big Heat’s lack of closure is a strength rather than a weakness. To me, though, it feels more like an oversight. Because of the quality of the filmmaking, the final effect of the film is still quite strong. As I said at the outset, this is a good film, even a very good film. But I don’t think it’s a great one.
For a much more positive look at the film, here's a piece from Bright Lights Film Journal.
Finally, here's an excellent piece on Gloria Grahame. I wanted to concentrate on other aspects of The Big Heat, but she was one of the great women of noir. I always think of her as noir's archetypal fallen woman. This piece gets at that quality, I think.