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The Big Heat (1953)

Film: The Big Heat (1953)
Stars: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Alexander Scourby, Jocelyn Brando
Director: Fritz Lang
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Throughout the Month of June, as a birthday present to myself, we'll be profiling 15 famous film noir movies I've never seen (my favorite film genre).  Look at the bottom of this review for some of the other movies we've profiled.

The Big Heat is our second film from Fritz Lang this month, our first being the kickoff to the Film Noir series The Woman in the Window.  Lang had a fascinating life, having his political beliefs come into the crosshairs of both Joseph Goebbels & Joe McCarthy, he also made landmark pictures early on in his career like Metropolis and M, the latter of which served as a precursor to his future work as arguably the most important director in the film noir genre.  Today we go with what many would consider his most important Hollywood movie, The Big Heat.  The film, one of the more storied Columbia film noir productions, is a startling, violent film, and one of the darker film noir pictures we've come across so far in this series, anchored by a truly spellbinding performance from Gloria Grahame.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie starts with the suicide of a police officer, being investigated by Sergeant Dave Bannion (Ford), a tough-as-nails police officer who has a seemingly idyllic life at home with his wife Katie (Brando, and yes, she is the older sister of Marlon Brando-did you know he had a sister who was an actress?).  This all changes when he starts investigating the crime, and more importantly the connected crime of the death of the police officer's lover Lucy.  Soon he is the target of threats, and then in a shocking mid-film twist, his wife Katie dies after an assassination attempt mistakenly targets her rather than Bannion.  This causes Bannion to spiral, quitting the force after realizing that the Police Commissioner is essentially in bed with the mob boss Lagana (Scourby) who put the hit out on his wife, and begins to form a sort of vigilante justice against Lagana, and two of his hit men, one being Vince Stone, played by an early-in-his-career Lee Marvin.  The film shifts when Stone's girlfriend Debby (Grahame) starts to turn on him, giving Bannion information after realizing that Vince's abuse could hurt her some day (he attacks another woman at the bar).  Eventually this leads to  Bannion finding justice for his wife, but also with Debby's death during a shootout with her ex Vince, who is arrested & we see Bannion return to the force.

This is relatively standard film noir-fate, but what makes The Big Heat stand out in the years since is the shocking depictions of violence in the picture.  About two-thirds of the way through the picture, you realize that Lang is pushing the boundaries of what would have been acceptable in the 1950's at the time by having an offscreen fight between Vince and Debby end with Vince throwing scalding coffee at Debby's face, maiming her.  You'd think that, to spare the audience the trauma of seeing gorgeous Gloria Grahame with burn makeup or scarred, they would have also killed her off off-screen, but that isn't the case.  I'm struck that it was Gloria Grahame of all people who volunteered to do this (considering how famously vain she was in real life), but she then wears a mask for the remainder of the film, except during the shootout where she takes it off and has permanent scar makeup all across her porcelain face...and retaliates against Marvin by throwing coffee in HIS face, making him endure the same fate.

Grahame is superb in this role.  While I've never been super partial to Glenn Ford (he's good here, if we're judging on a curve, but he always feels too stoic and inward of an actor, never getting into the expressiveness I'd expect from such a well-scripted part), Grahame is marvelous.  She plays Debby as a little girl lost, one who has seen the world and knows more than she's saying, but plays dumb to keep out of trouble, only risking her neck when she realizes that her fate will eventually be at the hands of Vince (which she's right about, as we horribly learn later in the picture).  Grahame was coming off of an Oscar win at the time, and was about to see her career shallow in the coming years with plastic surgery mishaps and a scandalous personal life, but The Big Heat is a reminder of how she was truly one of the best actresses of her generation, one who worked in genre films and as a result never got the credit she was due.

Previous Films in the Series: Pickup on South StreetGun CrazyNight and the CityIn a Lonely PlaceThey Live By NightNightmare AlleyRide the Pink HorseThe KillersThe Woman in the WindowThe Big Sleep

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