johnlink ranks THE BIG HEAT (1953)

A film noir made in the early 50s by famed Director Fritz Lang, THE BIG HEAT is the sort of movie that I love to discover. One of my favorite genres, a director I admire, a plot which sounds promising, and an early Lee Marvin role. I’m in on that all day long.


I watched THE BIG HEAT (1953) on 6.10.15. It was my first viewing of the film.

THE BIG HEAT is a movie which is undeniably conscious of the genre to which it belongs. This is not a movie of the early 40s setting out to define the language of black-and-white crime fiction, it is a movie which cashes in on those tropes and decided which ones to follow and which ones to break. Much of THE BIG HEAT, for example, happens in broad daylight or with gaudily lit scenes. The concept of the femme fatale is turned on its ear in a substantial way. Witty sexual banter happens – for a change – between a happily married couple. Perhaps what this movie should be most remembered for, though, is that it is a particularly brutal film in a genre which was never afraid to get its hands dirty in the first place.

Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is a good cop trying to track down the truth about a fellow police officer’s suicide. That trail leads him to a lying widow, a less-than-careful mistress, and a second murder. As his road gets blocked through official channels and his family gets threatened through unofficial ones, Bannion confronts the local crime boss, Lagana (Alexander Scourby). While all this is going on, Bannion is shown to have a wonderful home life with a young daughter and an impossibly perfect wife (played by Marlon’s older sister, Jocelyn Brando). A truly shocking act one twist launches us into an act two which has Bannion going rogue from the police department as he hunts Lagana and his thugs.

There are tons of colorful characters in this. Bannion is not a brooding detective, but a more traditional star who would be comfortable in modern action movies. His wife is a revelation as played by Brando, and their banter is the kind of stuff for which great film noir rests its reputation on. One of Lagana’s thugs, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) is a tough guy around chicks who withers when confronted by men his size. Stone has a girl, Debby (Gloria Grahame) who proves a nice foil for Bannion, even as she bucks the convention of the standard femme fatale. Truly, the performances in this film are worth the price of admission.

To talk too much about plot, though, is to spoil a surprisingly fun ride. THE BIG HEAT is a quickly paced movie, even by modern standards, and there are tons of moments in which the audience REALLY wants things to break Bannion’s way and they don’t. The danger in this movie is real, the stakes are truly high. In many movies of this genre we just don’t believe that anything truly bad will happen to the characters we really like. In the world created here by Fritz Lang, we get no such guarantees.


Lang’s visuals are superb throughout. He knows when to use shadow, when to pull back. He knows when to make us feel claustrophobic, and when to let the hero have a moment of glory. This is an understated movie, visually. This isn’t Lang showing us what he can do in an obvious way like he did early in his career. THE BIG HEAT is a film made by a filmmaker who knows the tricks, knows the game, and knows how use everything at his disposal to tell a damn good story.

The script does leave a few plot bits on the table. One, involving a plot to get Bannion’s daughter, is actually a pleasant resolution that we don’t expect. It doesn’t go anywhere after that, but that seems to be ok. Also, there is never that final Lagana/Bannion scene we so desperately want. Vince Stone stands in by proxy. Interestingly, there are big characters which don’t get their final payoff, and their are smaller characters (like a well-meaning detective who actually ISN’T crooked after all, an old woman who works at a junk yard, and Debby) who have an impact on the plot which may seem greater that the size of their role would indicate. But this all works. In THE BIG HEAT it is never about what you have done, but always about what you have to offer. The scars of the past are there, but the characters we grow to like use those scars to drive them rather than cripple them. It really is a fascinating tale.

The more I think about this movie, the more I love it. I can’t remember being this excited about a film noir I haven’t seen in quite awhile. This makes my upper echelon of the genre easily. Really glad I stumbled upon it.




FINAL SCORE: 8.25 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on June 11, 2015.

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