There’s nothing like a tough-minded, film noir excursion into the bleaker side of the human soul to make the hottest days of summer seem even more unrelenting. With that in mind, here’s the first of several noir picks to get you through the steamy evenings.
Fritz Lang came to America in the 1930’s, bringing with him the unease and paranoia of a Germany between wars. The director was part of the German Expressionism movement, the cinematic branch of which, with its harsh shadows and angular compositions, is often credited with planting the seeds for American noir. Lang’s most famous Deutschland masterpieces were about a purely evil master of mind control bending the world to his will (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler) and a purely evil child murderer being hunted by a vengeful citizenry (M). So there was no one better suited to delivering a crime thriller about a city so corrupt that it literally has no law left in it. The Big Heat still resonates with the post-war fear of the urban landscape as irredeemable, and if the idea of a lone wolf cop going up against an entire police department that is in the pocket of a mobster seems cliché now, it’s because movies like this were among the first to use the idea as a metaphor: for a world turned upside down, where nothing good will ever have the chance to flower.
Glenn Ford, in one of the more weirdly frightening roles of his career, plays Detective Sergeant Dave Banyon of the homicide squad. Tightly-wound, he only vaguely becomes loveable when he is softened by his perfect wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister) and adorable toddler daughter (Linda Bennett). Their scenes of kitchen-bound domesticity seem unsettlingly antiseptic even for 1953. (Despite some dated but racy dialogue that must have gotten folks hot under the collar back in the day: describing their little girl, Katie says she is all sweet during the day, but is a holy terror at night. Banyon, with a leer, retorts that the same description could apply to his wife!) But, there is a reason these saccharine scenes do not feel quite right, why they seem oddly tense, and that is that they are about to be shattered by violence. When Banyon’s attempts to get to the bottom of the suicide of a prominent police official ruffle the feathers of local mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), Banyon’s family is attacked. It is probably needless to say, then, that after this incident Banyon is a man who will not rest until Lagana is brought to justice. And his goal will not be easily met, since both his lieutenant and the police commissioner are on the take to Lagana (in one scene, the commissioner is shown playing cards with Lagana’s henchmen-the film delights in such in-your-face visual indicators; it hasn’t time to pull punches about anything).
The latter two-thirds of the plot mainly concerns Banyon’s search through the criminal underworld for a link to Lagana that can bring the malevolent man down. He works his way through Larry the tough-talking lackey (Adam Williams) and pesters Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), the moll to Lagana’s right-hand man Vince Stone (a wonderfully insane Lee Marvin). Stone has already tortured and killed one bar girl who went to Banyon with some information on the cop’s suicide, and his impulsive decision to throw hot coffee in Debby’s face reveals him to be a sadist as purely evil as any of Fritz Lang’s previous protagonists. (In fact, Alexander Scourby’s Lagana bears a striking resemblance to Dr. Mabuse himself.) Grahame is the glue that holds this feverishly-paced and violent tale together. One of the great, truly magnetic screen presences of the period, here she is at her playful and tragic best, not to mention the supplier of a terrific and unexpected plot twist. The film also takes time to delve into some thematic detours, such as in the scene in which Banyon’s brother-in-law assembles a gang of guys to watch over Banyon’s daughter. The men are all WWII veterans, and talk loudly of how their bravery overshadows the cowardly brutality of the mobsters. Perhaps the most interesting side note to mention about The Big Heat is that it was based on a very popular serial from The Saturday Evening Post by William P. McGivern (Sydney Boehm adapted the screenplay). It is certainly an oddity that the magazine famous for Norman Rockwell covers would publish such a fierce and unsettling tale of naked aggression and revenge.
Here, on film, is 90 minutes of straight-ahead crime fiction storytelling directed by a man who wasn’t happy unless he was exploring injustice, mistrust and the fear of being out of control. In The Big Heat, he does some serious exploring.
James Napoli is an author, filmmaker and teacher whose third book Violation! The Ultimate Ticket Book is now available.