254. The Big Heat ( US 1953)

 Directed by Fritz Lang

Starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando, Jeanette Nolan

Screenplay Sidney Boehm

Story Willam P McGivern (again)

Music  various uncredited

Cinematography Charles Lang

   

In one line: vengeful cop takes on the mob.

Homicide detective Dave Bannion (Ford) investigates the death of fellow officer Tom Duncan. He is tipped off by Duncan ’s mistress Lucy Chapman that Duncan ’s suicide was in fact murder. He discovers that Duncan has been in the pay of mob boss Mike Lagana.

Chapman is found dead. She has been tortured and her body is covered in cigarette burns. Bannion confronts Lagana, the gangster who is effectively running the city. Everyone it would appear is too scared to stand up to Lagana including Bannion’s immediate superior Lieutenant Wilks whom Bannion scathingly dismisses as a “leaning tower of jelly”.

 

Bannion also dismisses the warnings and threats to his personal safety and his car is blown up. Bannion’s wife dies in the explosion.

Bannion quits the force to go on a one man mission to destroy Lagana and his side-kick Vince Stone (Marvin).  

Bannion sees Stone stub a cigarette out on a girl in a nightclub and humiliates Stone and his henchman by ordering him out of the club. This impresses Stone’s girlfriend Debby Marsh (Grahame). Stone later punishes her by flinging scalding coffee in her face and disfiguring her). Marsh visits Duncan and sets in motion the solution to Bannion's and the city’s problems.  

Those who have colluded with crime figures are killed or made to renounce their corruption and stand up against the plague on the city. Stone is scalded by Debby Marsh in a revenge attack, but she must pay the price for her act of violence. Wilks rejects corruption and vows to uphold the values which had once made him an idealistic policeman.

 Bannion has one last decision to make as Lagana and the corrupt police Commissioner Higgins are indicted for a multitude of serious crimes.

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Fritz ‘Shanga’ Lang directed films for many, many years. His Metropolis and M are landmarks of early cinema. The Big Heat was/is a tough, controversial film which explores Lang's main themes of the machinations of city life and the way its citizens express themselves through nobility and selfishness and acts of extreme violence.

Glenn Ford, like his near- namesake Harrison, is a difficult actor to quantify. Was he genuinely talented and did he create his minimalist star persona deliberately - or was it just a lack of genuine charisma masquerading as taciturn masculinity? Either way, he's quite good in The Big heat, but he's nowhere near as good as the excellent Gloria Grahame who steals the film from under the noses of her more illustrious main stars. Lee Marvin's qualities only really came to the fore in his middle age and his fifties film performances are rarely the best things in his films.

The acts of violence in The Big Heat are still shocking to this day. The scalding of Grahame is particularly nasty, and the car bombing of Bannion's wife is shocking not just in case of the death of an innocent, but also indicative of how easily a society is destroyed or held to ransom by organised crime.

The title of the film is ambiguous - is The Big Heat the pressure put on the city or on individuals by both the police and the Mafia, or is it the more obvious scalding coffee used to disfigure two faces? The ritual cigarette burn torture of Lucy Chapman and Stone's cigarette burning of a nightclub girl are other variations on an unpleasant theme.

The Big Heat propelled the gangster/crime film into new areas of realism (despite a lot of the film being quite obviously studio-bound). The implications of institutionalised corruption in city and police life had been dealt with in European cinema but had rarely been even hinted act in America film. Kubrick's The Killers, Boorman's Point Blank and vigilante films such as Dirty Harry were all influenced by this excellent film and even British TV shows such as The Sweeney and Life on Mars have versions used Lieutenant Wilks' paulian anti-corruption conversion speech in significant episodes.

An excellent film.

 8/10

Further reading:

http://phoenixcinema.wordpress.com/2007/09/04/film-stars-dont-die-in-liverpool-by-peter-turner/