There’s a popular character in film noir efforts—the femme fatale, or deadly woman. She’s the vamp who ensnares all men she encounters, eventually destroying their lives.
The Big Heat, the last outstanding film by Austrian expatriate director Fritz Lang, takes that character and turns it over in several ways. In this case, the character is a guy—big-city cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford). And he isn’t trying to destroy all the women he encounters; it just turns out that way.
Bannion is a tough-talking homicide detective investigating the suicide of another cop. He questions the dead man’s widow, who makes up a phony story of how her husband shot himself because he had been suffering from an undiagnosed illness. Her tale sounds fishy.
We learn, well before Bannion does, that the dead officer had actually been racked with fear and guilt about being on the mob’s payroll. Turns out, his unsympathetic widow has used his tell-all suicide note to blackmail the gangsters into continuing those payments to her.
As Bannion probes the case, he’s told to slow down by the chief of police. When he goes to visit the city’s most-influential businessman—who also runs the local crime syndicate—he’s told that he’ll lose his job and his life if he doesn’t back off.
Of course he doesn’t. And the bodies start dropping.
There’s clip joint singer Lucy Chapman, who’s seen talking with the detective at a bar. Next thing we know, she’s tossed from a speeding car and found dead on the side of the road.
There’s Bannion’s wife, Katie (played by Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon). She goes to turn on the car and—BOOM!—she’s like Ace Rothstein in the opening scene of Casino. Except that she doesn’t survive.
There’s Bertha, the venal widow, also shot dead after a visit from the detective. Considering her miserable demeanor, that might be a relief to everyone.
And there’s Debby the gun moll (Gloria Grahame), who turns to our good cop after her mob boyfriend scalds her face with a pot of boiling coffee. Later, she gets shot four times, right through the mink coat.
As we said, Bannion wasn’t aiming to harm these ladies (well, he does admit that he considered offing the cop’s wife). But he does bear some responsibility in each case. Two are killed because they trust the rackets-fighting detective. A third dies because he blabs about their meeting. And his wife? Being married to Bannion was her death sentence.
Turns out, it’s all a big conspiracy. The mob runs the entire town. The police commissioner plays poker with the thugs. A viscous, silk-pajamas-wearing boss named Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) gives orders to everyone, from the city council on down.
Except, of course, for our inviolable detective. Initially, Bannion is investigating the suicide as a professional cop. After his wife’s murder, his motive becomes revenge.
The brilliant director Lang is also on our list for his 1931 film M, which actually portrays gangsters in a favorable light. This time, Lang said his objective was different. “I wanted to expose organized crime for what it is,” he said, “the enormous parasite that threatens to devour everybody.”
In one strong scene, Bannion pushes his way into Lagana’s mansion as the mob boss’s daughter is hosting a socialite dance. As Bannion tries to ask questions about one of the murders, Lagana dismisses him by saying he doesn’t “like dirt dragged into my home.”
“Oh, we don’t talk about those things in this house, do we?” chides Bannion. “No, it’s too elegant, too respectful. No place for a stinking cop. It’s only a place for a hoodlum who built this house out of 20 years of corruption and murder. You couldn’t plant enough flowers around here to kill the smell.”
Then he punches out one of Lagana’s bodyguards for good measure.
Throughout, The Big Heat boasts that kind of hard-boiled, if now clichéd, tough-guy dialogue. Ford, with his perfect Ronald Reagan hair and nice-guy face, is outstanding as the straight-arrow cop who evolves into a reactionary. He remains unmindful of the fact that his own habit of rushing in is responsible for the deaths that surround him.
Actually, that obliviousness strengthens the film. Regardless of the cost, he just presses on with his mission.
HIT: Lee Marvin, at 29, is menacing in his breakout role as Vince Stone, the misogynist hood who snuffs out a cigarette on one young woman and splashes that boiling pot of coffee on his girlfriend. “He’s a scary foil,” wrote critic Roger Ebert, “with his long, lean face and his ugly-handsome scowl.”
MISS: Lang aims to contrast the hard-edged clean cop vs. underworld theme by showing slices of Bannion’s idyllic suburban home life. But the domestic scenes, with the perky apron-clad wife and sugary young daughter, come across like a lame 1950s TV show—Leave it to Beaver, if Mrs. Cleaver were to get firebombed.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The present vogue for sadism and violence reaches some kind of apex in The Big Heat, a truly gruesome crime thriller. There is, of course, no excuse at all for a film like The Big Heat.”—Robert Kass, Catholic World
REALITY CHECK: Several people get shot in this film, but there’s not one visible drop of blood. In the most egregious example, the suicidal cop holds a gun to his own temple, fires and drops dead at his desk. When he’s discovered, there’s no splatter and no apparent tissue damage.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: There are enough other great noir films that you probably won’t get around to this one a second time.
PIVOTAL SCENE: After a few days of tension, highlighted by some threatening phone calls from mobsters, our hero and his wife decide what they need is a night on the town.
Bannion’s wife heads out to pick up the babysitter while he puts their daughter to bed. Just as he begins reading a story (“Three little kittens have lost their mittens. . . .”), the bedroom window fills with a flash and there is a loud explosion offscreen.
The car bomb meant to kill the nosy cop has instead killed his wife. Bannion mourns—for an extremely short period of time—and then redoubles his efforts to squash the mob. Now it’s not just business; now it’s personal.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Many of the scenes are shot from Bannion’s point of view. Fritz Lang said he filmed it that way so that the audience involuntarily followed Bannion and identified with him.
CASTING CALL: Columbia Pictures executives wanted Marilyn Monroe (who was under contract to 20th Century Fox) for the role of Debby, the tart with the heart of gold. They balked when they heard Fox’s asking price.
The role instead went to Gloria Grahame, who forged her career playing a floozie (town hottie Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life, Ado Annie—the girl who can’t say no—in Oklahoma!). In other news, Grahame was married four times, including once to director Nicholas Ray and later to his son (her stepson), Anthony Ray.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: There’s no blood, as we said. And the really violent stuff—the car bombing, the hurled hot coffee—all takes place offscreen.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: William P. McGivern’s original Saturday Evening Post serial, on which the movie is based, had several black characters. All were removed for the film, an unfortunate nod to the prejudice of the times. McGivern, by the way, later wrote for the TV cop show Kojak.
BEST LINE: Vince: “Hey, that’s nice perfume.”
Debby: “Something new. It attracts mosquitoes and repels men.”
Vince: “Well, it doesn’t chase me.”
Debby: “It’s not designed to.”
“I KNOW THAT GAL”: Doris, the unfortunate B-girl who has a cigarette extinguished on her wrist, is played by Carolyn Jones. She would later don a black fright wig and witch’s costume to play the sexy Morticia on the 1960s TV hit The Addams Family.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Salton Sea (2002), the story of a man whose wife is murdered, causing him to drift into a world where he is antagonized by both drug dealers and undercover police agents.
BODY COUNT: Four on-screen, another two offscreen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”