Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE BIG HEAT (1953)

Many noir devotees rank Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) very highly, and it certainly does have a great noir look and many memorable scenes, but I find that I much prefer some of Lang's other genre outings, like The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), to this more celebrated 1953 picture. My reluctance to embrace the movie has a great deal to do with gender; this is the opposite of a women's noir film, set in a deeply misogynistic world where matrons and molls are equally doomed. That's not to say that the movie is not worth watching, since it features great performances from Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame, but I don't think The Big Heat is a film that I will want to revisit any time soon.

Glenn Ford stars as police sergeant Dave Bannion, whose investigation of a fellow cop's suicide uncovers a ring of corruption and crime that goes all the way to the top brass in town. His interview with a barfly (Dorothy Green) leads to the girl's murder, but Bannion refuses to be bullied out of his pursuit, even after his own wife (Jocelyn Brando) is murdered in a car bombing meant to kill him. The local crime lord, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), sends his thugs after Bannion, chief among them Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), but Stone's girlfriend, Debby (Gloria Grahame), gums up the works by taking a shine to Bannion and then aiding him in his investigation after an irate Vince disfigures her with a pot of boiling coffee. The body count rises as Bannion closes in on the truth, but the detective himself edges ever closer to becoming like those he hates as his anger and need for vengeance drive him forward.

The story reflects a lot of noir conventions, with its good cops and bad cops, its depictions of women, and its bloodthirstiness, but Glenn Ford's Bannion is never very compelling as the protagonist. He's too much of a man's man, stiff upper lip and all that, and he mostly emotes stony anger that breaks out into barely suppressed rage. He is presented to us as a man who does not cross the final line that separates him from the bad guys, but we get the sense that really he crossed it a long time ago, and only circumstances hold him back now. In other words, for a good guy he's too bad, and for a bad guy he's too good, and he either needs to soften up to be a real hero or toughen up and become a proper piece of work. His wife, Katie, played by Marlon Brando's older sister, ought to provide that softening, but the film doesn't show us enough there, especially in the way of her death scene, and Bannion seems tense around her and their daughter rather than domestic.

The bad guys have fewer issues with their identities, and they end up being the stronger and more interesting characters. Lee Marvin is just despicable as the sadistic Vince Stone, and that's exactly what he is supposed to be. Gloria Grahame's Debby enjoys playing with fire by hanging around Vince and taunting him; she wants to know how far she can go before he does something about it, and she gets her answer in a pot of hot coffee flung into her face. The dead police officer's wife, played by Jeanette Nolan, is another nasty prize; Debby claims that they are "sisters under the mink," both of them rotten women who have done horrible things for all the wrong reasons. All of these roles are played to the hilt by their performers, and they work so well that they wrest our attention away from our ostensible hero.

One thing that really strikes me about The Big Heat is the number of female characters in the movie. We have Debby the bitter mob girl, Katie the sweet wife, Lucy the earnest barfly, and Bertha the conniving widow. All of them end up dead. The film presents a lot of ugly ideas about women as disposable characters. Katie dies for being married to Bannion, Lucy dies for trying to do the right thing, Debby dies because she is sexually and morally tainted, and Bertha dies because that allows the hidden information to come out and clear the air. Another young woman, merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, is attacked by Vince with a lit cigarette; it seems that he has a penchant for torturing women by burning them. Perhaps the cigarette burns and the flaming death car give another meaning to the film's title. The deaths of all of the major women characters suggest that the world has no place for any of them, rather like some of Shakespeare's tragedies, where new world orders seem to be formed entirely of the surviving males. I don't know that male film critics notice these kinds of things, but for me, the film's treatment of its women constitutes a major concern, especially because the deaths are so brutal and absolute. There's a sadism at work here beyond that of Vince Stone, one that treats all female characters as mere sacrifices to men's plots, both fictional and cinematic.

Don't start an exploration of noir with The Big Heat unless you really like your films pitch black. Glenn Ford has more interesting roles in Gilda (1946) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Be sure to see more of Gloria Grahame in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Lee Marvin also has memorable roles in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Professionals (1966), although I admit to adoring his awful singing in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Fritz Lang's earlier work includes masterpieces like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931); he also directed the interesting Gothic mystery, House by the River (1950).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.