Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Big Heat


1953's THE BIG HEAT is one jewel of a movie.  A tough, seemingly straightforward photo play of good versus evil that merits serious post viewing analysis.  All of the elements were there for me: classic noir, Fritz Lang as director, an early role for Lee Marvin.  I watched it late one night expecting just a good ol' programmer set within a cinematic landscape I love.  I'm always down for a noir.  When it was over, it was impossible to succumb to heavy eyelids right away.  This was a complex, searing drama that even Euripides might've imagined.

Tom Duncan commits suicide.  He was a cop who, according to his widow Bertha (Jeannette Nolan), was very ill.  Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is not so eager to close the case, even if everyone else, including his superior, Lieutenant Wilks (Willis Bouchey), are.  Too many variables.  Then Bannion meets a woman named Lucy (Dorothy Green) who says she was Duncan's mistress. She too disagrees with the open and shut verdict.  Then she turns up dead.

Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is the town's overlord, a mobster who has the police department in his pocket - they even provide security for his house parties. Bannion seems to be the only one who isn't afraid of him, confronting him in his home after threatening phone calls invade his happy domecile. It is there that Bannion has a loving wife (Joyce Brando) and daughter.  The lawman truly believes he can keep domestic bliss apart from the town's corruption.   Then a bomb detonates in his car, the one his wife was using for an errand.  Bannion's transformation into one man vigilante is hastened by his department's lack of initiative to apprehend the murderers.

In the name of justice, many will suffer.  Injustice befalls those who would seek to help Bannion on the case.  I thought of the little seen HICKEY AND BOGGS, an early '70s crime drama in which death follows the policemen of the film's title like a shadow.   When the departed have been avenged, how many will have joined them in that pursuit? An unavoidable by product? THE BIG HEAT poses questions like these, though as you're watching you mostly get caught up in the mission, the singlemindedness to make the slimeballs pay.  This would include the character that a late 20s-ish Marvin plays, Lagana's hot headed second in command, Vince.  His one-of-a-kind persona was already apparent.

Vince's much abused girlfriend is Debby (Gloria Grahame), by all accounts a "bad girl" who eventually assists Bannion in his awful quest, and not without consequence.  Note the infamous coffee scene.  Her character almost becomes a reverse Harvey Two-Face.  I was impressed how the patented femme fatale character was rethought for this movie.   Debby suffers, as do many women in this film, for both the sins and good deeds of the male characters.  But also for a woman, Bertha, in whom Debby sees a similar persona: "we're the same under these minks."   Sydney Boehm's adaptation of William P. McGivern's novel and a Saturday Evening Post serial makes some interesting points about a woman's place in this world designed by their other halves.  Pretty heady for a film made in an era when the fairer sex were often portrayed in the media as subservients who were forever expected to have dinner on the table.

Lang orchestrates deftly.  His direction is compact but beautifully composed.  Thrilling, too.  With every meeting among the characters the whiff of danger is about, owing to stellar performances but also to Lang's business about them.  And for its time there is quite a bit of violence, though the emotional sort is even more scalding.
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