The Big Heat (1953)

Like Fritz Lang's Western Rancho Notorious (1951), The Big Heat is a ballad of 'hate, murder and revenge'. In both films, the hero is driven outside the law when his love interest is killed by sadistic minions of a crime boss (who personally disapproves of such extremes) and compelled to pull down the whole corrupt system that has perverted his world. Both feature facial scars as a recurring motif, 'crooked politicians', iconic close-ups of guns and a clear-eyed criminal woman who sacrifices herself for the hero. The noirish The Big Heat is oddly easier on its hard-boiled protagonist, cop Dave Bannion, than Rancho Notorious is on cowboy Vern (Arthur Kennedy): the earlier film combines the figures of Mabuse-style mastermind and redeemed bad girl in Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), with whom Vern falls in love, while The Big Heat sets up decorative but sharp moll Debby (Gloria Grahame) as an outsider within the gang of smooth crime czar Lagana (Alexander Scourby), with a degree of license to criticise her dangerous boyfriend Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), making her almost the equivalent of 'good badman' Frenchy (Mel Ferrer). The possibility of a romance between Bannion and Debby is implicit but never raised - these people are too trapped in their roles of cop/family man and crook/moll to get together - while Vern's love for Altar makes his destruction of her gang yet another tragic loss of home.

Though it tackles themes Lang dealt with as early as the Dr Mabuse movies, The Big Heat is one of many exposé gangster films produced in Hollywood in the '50s: The Enforcer (1951), The Captive City (1952), Chicago Syndicate (1955), The Big Combo (1955), The Phenix City Story (1955), Underworld USA (1961). Inspired by the Kefauver Commission on organised crime, the cycle adapts the psychological approach of '40s noirs to analyse not a sick mind but a sick society, depicting American towns and cities under the control of 'the Syndicate'. The flamboyant psychopaths who would have been the lead menaces of movies like Little Caesar (1930) or The Public Enemy (1931) are demoted to the supporting role taken by Vince Stone. The real hate figures are the faceless higher-ups rarely glimpsed in the earlier movies (the 'Big Boy' of Little Caesar): Lagana, an immigrant made good who hypocritically regrets the need for violence but is determined not 'to end up in the same ditch with the Lucky Lucianos', is a '50s gang boss, half chairman of the board and half fascist duce. He speaks with the reasonable, soulless tone of the Body Snatchers, while Bannion (whom he accuses of 'tracking dirt into his house' by mentioning the murder of a bar-girl he has ordered killed) and Stone (a neanderthal whose only come-back to Debby's sniping witticisms is to throw hot coffee in her face) are monsters from the Id.

The Big Heat is a film of violence, opening with a close-up of a gun about to be used in the suicide of corrupt cop Tom Duncan, and proceeding rapidly through its plot with jolting horrors that malform the characters. Bannion turns from family man to obsessive rogue cop when his wife (Jocelyn Brando) is blown up by a car bomb meant for him. Debby is embittered by the ruining of her beauty and takes up Bannion's quest for revenge, precipitating the big heat by confronting and murdering her 'sister under the mink', grasping widow Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan). With Bertha's death, the evidence Tom Duncan left behind, which is enough to bring down Lagana's empire, is released. In a crucial development, prefigured in both Fury (1936) and Rancho Notorious, the embittered hero is still unable to commit cold-blooded murder to achieve his purpose - Bannion stops short of assaulting Bertha - and a doppelganger has to step in to pull the last thread that allows justice to be done. The point is underlined in the climax, which finds Debby returning Vince's favour by dashing boiling coffee in his face and being gut-shot by the villain, prompting Bannion to trounce his ugly mirror image (a witness tags Stone as about Bannion's height but flashily dressed) in a brutal fight but not to gun him down even though Stone implores him to 'shoot!'

Grounded far more in political reality than most of Lang's noirs, thanks to the hard-hitting detail of William P. McGivern's novel and Sydney Boehm's script, The Big Heat is still indebted to expressionism, with sets that reflect the characters' overriding personality traits: the cold luxury of the Duncan house, bought with dirty money; the tasteless wealth of Lagana's mansion, with its hideous portrait of the mobster's sainted mother and jiving teenage party; the penthouse moderne of Vince and Debby, where the police commissioner plays cards with killers; the cramped, poor-but-honest apartment of the Bannion family, underlined by too-insistent heart-warming music; and the hotel room where Bannion ends up, his life pared down to the need for vengeance ('early nothing,' Debby comments). The tabloid sensibility of Lang's late American films (While the City Sleeps, 1955, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, 1956) informs the depiction of squadroom and barroom, and there is a transgressive charge to the various minor cruelties (an obscene phone call taken by Mrs Bannion, Stone stubbing a cigarette on the arm of a dice-playing girl in a bar, the famous coffee-throwing attacks) that imbues the film with an unpredictable, uneasy sense of danger. Even the finale is hardly comforting: after the fall of the crime syndicate, the widowed hero is not seen embracing his daughter and picking up his home life but returning to his desk in the Homicide Department. The welcome of workmates - expressed, of course, by an offer of coffee - is curtailed and the end title appears over Bannion putting on his hat and coat to go out and deal with 'a hit and run over on South Street'.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: The St James Encyclopedia of Films and Filmmakers.


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