40×40: The Big Heat (1953)

“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.”

Why Did I Get This?

This disc was a gift from Late Reviewer contributor John Featherstone, presumably after he upgraded from DVD to Blu-Ray (because he’s very kind like that), and has sat on my shelves for longer than I’d care to imagine.

My decision to watch it followed my reading of Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein – a charity shop purchase from a few months ago which I picked up on a whim, knowing little about Marvin or the vast majority of his films (the exceptions being The Dirty Dozen, Point Blank and, sadly, Paint Your Wagon).

I had no knowledge of The Big Heat going in, though I was aware of director Fritz Lang and Marvin too. While its appearance in Epstein’s book is limited to a couple of pages, I dug its description of Marvin’s character Vince Stone as a “fancy-dressed yet sadistic henchman”, and the plot sounded like a great noir with (and this has been key of late), a shortish runtime.

The disc itself is completely vanilla, but let’s give it a spin…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include details from throughout the film which could be considered spoilers. If you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading.

The Big Heat is the tale of homicide cop Dave Bannion who is called to investigate the suicide of a fellow officer. When his investigation points towards large scale corruption within the police force, Bannion’s wife is killed by a car bomb and he takes it upon himself to bring down the local underworld syndicate led by Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), and his henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin).

Opening with a self-inflicted (albeit off-screen), gunshot wound to the head of a corrupt police officer, followed by his new widow hiding the suicide note addressed to the District Attorney, it’s clear from the off that we’re deep in Film Noir territory.

To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel: “It’s like, how much more noir could this be? And the answer is none. None more noir.”

And that’s fine, because I do enjoy the genre, even if I don’t go back to them that often. Perhaps that rarity of revisiting makes me appreciate them more, I dunno, but I had a great time with The Big Heat.

In his book, Dwayne Epstein said the film gave Marvin’s career “a well-needed jolt”, with “a performance that became a classic of its genre”, and it’s easy to see why. Listed fifth in the opening credits, Marvin’s character is fascinating to watch whenever he’s on screen – he holds his own with the mob boss and his fellow hoods, but he’s no mindless thug. Rather, he’s a team player with an inclination towards psychotic violence, and particularly adept at aiming it towards women.

Before we get there though, it’s important to mention some of the other aspects of the film, and while I wouldn’t call them light, there were some interesting little elements in the movie’s world.

Firstly, shortly after the opening suicide, we see the DA’s manservant bring him the phone in the middle of the night while wearing his pyjamas, then hangs around as his boss smokes a cigarette in bed. There was no insinuation, no implication of any relationship between them, but it really struck me as odd, almost quirky. As if Alfred had brought the Bat-Phone to a snoozing Bruce Wayne while wearing his dressing gown and a nightcap.

Also, and I’m skipping ahead a little, when Bannion is suspended from the force because he refused to let his wife’s murder be pinned on some ‘innocent’ perp he’d put away previously, he’s ordered to hand over his gun and badge.

Now, I’ve never seen this before, but he gives the Commissioner his badge, but refuses to hand in his gun because it’s his, bought and paid for, and not the property of the department. I thought that was a nice little character detail for Bannion.

Speaking of nice character details, Bannion’s wife Katie (a charming Jocelyn Brando), is a really interesting figure. An heiress, effectively supporting her policeman husband, she is cocky, sarcastic and funny in their scenes at home – forever pinching sips of his drinks and drags of his smokes. She’s a strong character, and it’s a shame to see her ‘fridged‘ as the plot thickens, but I suppose that’s the nature of the beast – got to have an inciting incident to kick our hero up a gear, but you’d imagine that 70 years on our screenwriters might be able to do better…

Actually, probably not.

The brutal violence dished out against women is another feature of The Big Heat that, frankly, I wasn’t prepared for.

With the violence mostly coming from Marvin’s character, female characters have cigarettes put out on them, are tortured to death, blown up (see above), and are permanently disfigured by having boiling coffee thrown in their face.

The last incident in particular was a real shock to me. I thought the death of Bannion’s wife was rough, but Marvin’s scalding of his girlfriend Debby (a tragic Gloria Grahame), seemingly came from nowhere and was all the more shocking for it. I suppose it’s a violent escalation from James Cagney pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face twenty-odd years previously, but the attack and the reaction that followed it were genuinely surprising.

Likewise, I thought the prosthetics on Grahame in her later scenes as she repays the favour to Marvin’s vicious thug were surprisingly effective. I don’t really buy into the ‘disfigurement = villain’ characterisation, but it’s interesting to explore with Debby – before she is burned, she is pretty much happily complicit with whatever Vince and his boss are getting up to, and she seems smart enough to know it’s not all on the level.

However, once her looks are altered, she is able to stand up against her abusive partner (a good thing), and murder a blackmailing widow (less good, but wraps up the story quite neatly). Of course, this being 1953, she is fatally wounded in the closing scenes and dies to atone for her sins, but not before a brief heart-to-heart with Bannion who reassures her that she and his wife would probably have got along nicely.

Oh, and as if to hammer home the symbolism, as she dies Bannion covers her scars with her mink coat so only the ‘good’ half of her face is showing. Subtle.

Grahame does well with her role. Not quite the generic ‘hooker with a heart of gold’, but maybe adjacent to that. There’s a sadness carried throughout her performance even before she’s disfigured, as if she knows she’s in a toxic relationship but abides because it keeps her living in the style to which she’s become accustomed. At one point she tells Bannion…

“When Vince talks business I go out and get my legs waxed or something.”

… so she knows he’s up to no good, but buries her head in the sand until it’s too late. Her fascination with Bannion’s late wife seems to come out of nowhere once she turns from the villains towards the light, and felt a little rushed, so it’s unclear whether she’s just trying to latch onto Bannion as her new protector, or if she’s genuinely just being nice.

Elsewhere, it’s easy to see how Marvin’s career was boosted by The Big Heat – he goes from sharply dressed, smooth talking hood to predatory misogynist in a heartbeat, and both acts are fascinating to watch. If you’ll indulge the geek in me another Batman reference, had The Dark Knight been made around this time, he’d have made a fantastic Harvey Dent.

What’s more, after he’s attacked by Debby then chased around his apartment by Bannion in his final scenes, his squirms of pure desperation and squealing cries of “SHOOT, SHOOT!” at his attacker is unlike anything I’ve seen Marvin do on screen – I never knew his voice went so high.

Credit too to Glenn Ford for his performance as the good cop in a bad city. I’ve only ever seen him before as Clark Kent’s dad in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, but his dark, dogged determination in The Big Heat and willingness to harass the widow of a dirty cop is great and I’m looking forward to seeing him in 3.10 To Yuma ( which is also sitting on my shelf – cheers again, John!).

He even gets to do a couple of nice bits of police work too – a sneaky attempt to put a face to a name at a local club doesn’t quite work out for him, but it’s cool to see some old-fashioned gumshoeing. He also plays a good dad and husband, something all too rare in the noir-y films of the era I’m used to.

Oh, and the hotel he holes up in once his home is targeted by the villains seems to come with a complimentary bottle of Scotch, which is a damn sight better than the tiny kettles I’m used to.

Bannion also manages to rally some troops to look after his daughter once the going gets tough. Not cops, but his brother-in-law and old Army mates who bring their guns round to protect his kid – there’s a nice bit of business when one of the guys doesn’t recognise him, but it’s a fun scene in amongst a dark story.

One thing that surprised me about The Big Heat was Fritz Lang’s direction. My knowledge of his other films is limited to Metropolis and M, but I know a little about his Expressionist background and expected – wrongly – that The Big Heat would look flashier than it did, for want of a better term.

Nothing wrong with how it looks, of course, and it fits perfectly into a noir-shaped box. However, if his name hadn’t been above the title, I’d have said it could’ve been made by pretty much anyone working in Hollywood at that time.

By the time the end credits roll, we see Stone arrested for murder before a slow-moving newspaper headline informs us that the dirty DA, Police Commissioner and mob boss have all been indicted and are set to face the music. Not only that, but we see Bannion back behind his desk ready for action once more, as if nothing had ever happened.

Yeah, sure, it’s very neat and tidy, but again, I suppose it’s the nature of the beast.


Apparently, Lang loved Marvin and was less fond of Ford, and while the latter gives a good show here, his character is a little less interesting than the hood – but isn’t that always the way? I’d love to read the serialisation it’s based on, so if anyone’s able to point me towards an easily accessible copy of that, I’d be hugely grateful.

These days, it could easily be a forgettable Liam Neeson or Jason Statham cheapie, but with Fritz Lang’s direction and some top-tier performances, The Big Heat is darker and far more thrilling than they would be.

The grimness of the violence – both shown and off-screen – is key to that darkness. Marvin’s throwaway line which reveals he’s murdered a colleague and “what’s left of him is on its way to the river”, is delivered almost with a smirk but still underplayed to the point where he could be discussing what he had for breakfast.

Worse still is the dismissal of violence against women by male characters throughout the film. When the coroner is explaining how a woman was found murdered with evidence of torture, he couldn’t care less and pretty much suggests girls like her get what’s coming to them. A scene or so later, and a senior police officer states it outright (“When barflies get killed it’s for any one of a dozen crummy reasons, you know that.”), while the barman she was drinking with before her death hammers home the misogyny with a simple “These things happen, Sergeant”.

It’s little touches like that which make The Big Heat chilling (if you’ll excuse the paradox), memorable, and something I’d definitely recommend to anyone wanting to dip into 1950s cinema.

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