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The Big Heat (1953)

by on 2011/03/12

“You ought to do radio commercials: how to talk a lot and say nothing.”

* * *

Another movie that kept making various online lists, The Big Heat was one I’d never seen before. It was part of a video compilation I’d recently acquired, and boasted a modest restoration and the endorsement of two respected directors: Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese. I came to it cold, expecting something short and sharp and, despite its misleading poster art, it didn’t disappoint.

Right from the beginning, I noticed the absence of conventions I’d started taking for granted in my recent run of noir. This story has no framing device or flashbacks. It’s the tale of an unfailingly upstanding police sergeant, Dave Bannion (Superman’s Glenn Ford), booking the suicide of a fellow officer.

The case initially appears uncomplicated until a “barfly” mistress emerges to dispute the victim’s motive for killing himself. Bannion’s follow-up investigation unearths a variety of suspicious players, including the widow, a dangerous thug (Lee Marvin of The Dirty Dozen), his moll (Gloria Grahame of It’s a Wonderful Life), a crime lord, and members of the justice system itself.

If the movie runs average as a mystery, even disappointing as film noir, it breaks new ground in other ways. We’ve seen cops on the take (in The Asphalt Jungle), however systemic corruption, a familiar device in modern plots, would have been a novelty at this time. Abuse, torture, and cover-ups have not been as obvious so far.

None of which touches on the spree of vengeance launched by the hero when his family life is threatened. “Spree of vengeance” might be a misleading phrase. Ford seems incapable of devolving to the point of Marvin’s Vince Stone. He’s vulnerable, but never weak, and tough but sympathetic.

And while he could not have foreseen his successors, Bannion walks the middle ground between Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. The narrative tempted me to draw parallels with Paul Kersey (Death Wish) or Frank Castle (The Punisher), though it doesn’t have the darker edge of either.

Still, where it’s careful with its advancement of violence, it’s downright generous with its presentation of women. Their functions are traditional, and yet their numbers and empowered attitudes help to balance up the scales. These roles are not retiring wallflowers and neither are they outrageous for comic effect. The law may answer to the mob here, but take note of who’s pulling the syndicate’s strings.

With regards to the filmmaking, The Big Heat is rote standard. The visuals and audio can best be summed up with the word “unremarkable”, especially by the yardstick of noir. Deep focus staging exists, but angles are rarely extreme. Shadows loom on occasion, but the lighting is rarely eye-catching.

There are a few nice touches, rare decorations for a serviceable effort. A scarred face suggests a theme of conflict and duality. Sudden jump cuts add impact to a punch and photo flash. A pedestrian production amps up the violence by contrast.

Admittedly, I expected a bit more. After all, the director Fritz Lang (Metropolis) is renowned as a legend of German Expressionism, the cinematic movement informing film noir’s visual style. There’s nothing wrong with The Big Heat as such. It just felt, more than anything else, like an evolution of players and plots, the missing link between crime and revenge.

Heck, I wanted short and sharp, and that’s basically what I got, in a meat and potato casserole kind of way.

* * *

Not rated, but contains adult situations and violence

91 minutes

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