Review: The Big Heat
Blu-ray & DVD: The Big Heat (1953)
Police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the suicide of a fellow officer, but when he’s contacted by the dead man’s mistress he suspects foul play. Finding out that the dead policeman has ties to local gang boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his right-hand man Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), Bannion is set on a course from which there is no going back.
Thanks to Adam at The Secret History of Hollywood podcast, my love of Film Noir has been renewed, so watching Indicator’s new release of The Big Heat was a treat. Here we have a film that works on many levels as pure 50’s thriller-noir, and also as a film students dream essay subject on gender roles and the thin line between ‘good and evil’.
It’s also a film that puts its female characters to the fore, beginning with the Jeanette Nolan’s ultra cold ‘what’s she up too’? character of the dead policeman’s wife, Bannion’s ‘one of the gays’ wife, and a magnificently kookie, breathless and gorgeous Gloria Grahame as the moll. Even the very small part of the dead policeman’s mistress is fully rounded despite her 3 minute air time.
Ford is surprisingly effective as the somewhat ethically subversive Bannion, who prone to murderous strangling-in-a-fit-of-anger bursts, seems to disregard his superiors orders of restraint, to carry on his own investigation of the bad guys for no other reason than, he wants to. Ford plays this dual good cop/bad cop persona in a stoic 1950’s way, delighting in telling someone about his wife being one of the boys because she liked to drink his beer and share a nice fag with him (bit dated but then this was 1953 and sharing a nice fag with your policeman husband probably was extraordinary at the time?).
After receiving threatening calls about the suicide cops case to his home, Bannion confronts Mike Lagana the local mob boss who runs the city. Feeling rather pleased with himself he returns back to his perfect home and wife (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon) she is murdered when she uses his car to pop to the shop (for beer and fags).
It’s with her unexpected death the film takes a rather subversive turn where Lang questions the human cost of Bannion’s ethical stand. Two women lose their lives because they trust Bannion, and a third is sent to her death because of information Bannion gives her. This is a film filled with fake domestic tranquility precariously separated from a world of violence both for Bannion and for Stone. Bannion thinks his family life IS separate from his policework but he invites evil into the lives of his wife and two other women by his self-righteous heroism.
It doesn’t occur to him that he is at least partly responsible for their deaths, and he continues ‘blindly’ on his mission oblivious to its cost.
Bannion involves all the women in his life in his quest for ‘justice’, his wife is murdered, his daughter taken to live with a disatnt relative and after Stone orders him out of the bar where the mob hangs out. Stone’s moll (Grahame) follows Bannion and ends up in his hotel room, for, on her part, the chance of a shag (considering his wife has been dead a week, he seems quite into a bit of fluff too). She is followed to the hotel, and when she returns to Stone, in one of cinema’s more infamous scenes, he throws a pot of boiling coffee into her face, leaving her scarred for life. Even today this scene packs a punch, her retaliation of throwing hot coffee in Stones face later on, is even more horrific, as she is hidden in the shadows and all the viewer sees is flying liquid and a crumpled screeching Marvin.
It seems that Bannion’s agenda is to set up the women, allow their deaths to confirm his hatred of the Lagana gang, and then wade in to get revenge. Lang played it as if Bannion is unware of his ‘deeper’ purpose and that’s the beauty of Lang’s moral ambidexterity. He tells the story of a heroic cop, while using it to mask another story which is so much darker, beneath.
Again this Indictor release has great extras. I did think the commentary was a little dry (academics discussing Noir, no funny anecdotes, how banal of me…), but the Tony Rayns film and Scorcese and Mann shorts are fab.
INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES:
• High Definition remaster
• Original mono audio
• Audio commentary by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
• Tony Rayns on Fritz Lang and ‘The Big Heat’ (2017, 34 mins): a newly filmed appreciation and analysis by the film historian
• Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat (2009, 6 mins)
• Michael Mann on The Big Heat (2009, 11 mins)
• Isolated score: experience Henry Vars’ original soundtrack music
• Original theatrical trailer
• Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by critic Glenn Kenny, an archival interview with Fritz Lang, a critical anthology, and a look at the film’s Production Code history
• Limited Dual Format Edition of 5,000 copies
• UK Blu-ray premiere