Spotlight on The Big Heat
When I heard about the Film Noir Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In I knew I wanted to participate. But I also knew that I wasn’t the film noir expert in my family. That would be my sister, Shannon, who’s a huge fan of the genre. So I asked if she would write a piece for me and she kindly obliged with the below observations on 1953’s The Big Heat.
Hello, everyone! Melanie has kindly asked me to do a guest post on her blog today for the Film Noir Blogathon. She likes a few noirs too, but she knows how much I am taken with this highly stylized, very classic genre. I’ve chosen a bit of an underrated noir today. When people think of the top noirs, or perhaps their favorite noirs, The Big Heat rarely comes to mind. Yet, Fritz Lang’s gritty drama is a fine example of the genre.
“Why did they fear a dead man? Dave Bannion, homicide sergeant, fought for the answer to that question. He got it… Then the big heat came.” (The Big Heat, by William P. McGovern)
The 1953 film is an adaptation of McGovern’s novel of the previous year. It follows police Sergeant Dave Bannion and his quest for justice, even when he has to dish it out himself. The story opens with the suicide of a fellow cop which causes all the rats in the city to come crawling out of their holes. In a town owned by gangster Mike Lagana and run by a force of crooked cops and corrupt politicians, Bannion seems like the only decent, honest cop around. A beacon of light in a dingy world of shady characters. But when tragedy strikes, Bannion’s world spirals downward and puts him in the mindset of a vigilante hell-bent for revenge under the mask of justice.
The cast features Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion. The Big Heat was the second Ford film I ever saw. This was before I ever started an exploration of his films and he became one of my favorite actors. But that’s a whole other story. Ford was known for his very reserved character portrayals. Slow and steady was his approach and his portrayal of Bannion is a perfect example. Yet, underneath that quietly stoic exterior is a dangerous streak, kept at bay for the most part, but percolating over the course of the film until it just about boils over and burns the crooks who stand in his way.
The Big Heat has all the earmarks of a typical film noir. The lone protagonist, here a police detective, pitted against a world of corruption. He straddles that fine line between good and bad, sometimes slipping to the wrong side, but eventually catching his balance and leading for the greater good. You have the fall guys, the cheap crooks who, to quote Philip Marlowe, “think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail”. There are shadows, oh yes, there are shadows, especially mandatory bars of sunlight that filter through the blinds. And there is a femme fatale, wonderfully played by Gloria Grahame.
Yet, The Big Heat stands out from other noirs in a few ways. For one thing, this story features a cop. Cops are not usually alone, they are part of the police force. Still, Bannion is isolated from the rest of his division because he refuses to be on Lagana’s payroll. Also, Bannion is a family man. He has a wife and daughter and a perfectly happy home life that is a haven from the oppressive world of gangsters, thieves, and gangland killings. Even when tragedy strikes, he still has that responsibility.
Another thing you’ll notice in this film is the even cast of male and female characters. Noir is typically a man’s world. Even when the femme fatale is a puppeteer pulling the strings, the majority of the characters are men. Yet, here you’ll find a woman for every man. For better or worse, I might add. Bannion has his wife (played by Jocelyn Brando). Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is paired with Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), the black widow of the cop who killed himself. Vince Stone, Lagana’s right-hand man (expertly played in all his rage by Lee Marvin), has his moll, Debbie (Grahame). Even the crooked cops in this story are balanced by a local “barfly”, Lucy Chapman. Lucy appears to be a good-for-nothing dame who drowns her sorrows in any local bar, but in fact, she has a decent heart and a sharp mind. The cops, in contrast, are apparently upholding the law, but in fact are bowing before the crookedest hood in the state.
So you see, the story is all noir, but the setting is something else. When you see Debbie and Bannion in a darkened hotel room, a shaft of lamplight highlighting the distance between their characters, think back to the brightness of the Bannion household, warm and inviting, with a steak cooking on the stove and a little girl sleeping soundly in her room. When you see Debbie imprisoned in darkness with bars of sunlight creating her jail, look for Bannion taking his daughter in his arms to tell her a story.
If you like film noir, definitely give The Big Heat a chance. And if you’ve seen it already, take a second look. It’s really a good noir. Only, you might not want to be drinking coffee while you’re watching. It may leave a bad taste in your mouth.