This week in the Best of Film Noir we’re taking a look at a lesser known film noir, The Big Heat. Many of the films we look at are violent, and The Big Heat is no exception, but what’s interesting in this film is that much of the violence takes place off the screen. However, there are a couple of intense scenes that we do see that were incredibly brutal and shocking for the time (and for some they still are now). Filmed in 1953 and starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Lee Marvin, The Big Heat starts with the murder of a police sergeant and follows the detective assigned to the case.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
As we know from examining other film noir, the noir hero is usually a troubled man who suffers at the hands of fate. Glenn Ford plays detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, an honest man who is forced to make ugly choices in order to find justice. But let’s be honest, Bannion doesn’t hesitate to use unscrupulous means to get to the truth. It’s difficult to watch the tearing down of this man’s sense of law-abiding principles, and his shift from wanting the truth to wanting revenge (although some criticize the film because Bannion does not become as corrupt as a real noir hero would). Ford does an admirable job in the role of noir hero, a guy who is not so heroic that he becomes unbelievable.
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Boy do we have a great femme fatale in The Big Heat. Gloria Grahame plays Debbie, a gangster’s girl who is sexy and she’s not afraid to speak her mind – bluntly. She’s a tragic figure, caught between her own materialistic desires and the drama of the gangster world she lives in. Her redeeming quality is that she ends up siding with Bannion, but it ultimately costs her, a different ending than most femme fatales. Grahame is wonderful in this role.
The Best of Film Noir – The Direction
Fritz Lang directed The Big Heat, and he created a masterpiece, a gritty look at police corruption and gangland murder. Some critics dismissed the film as just another crime drama, but the film is so much more. Lang shows the true elements of noir: external forces that dictate what happens to innocent people. Lang directed the earlier classics M and Metropolis, both having elements of noir, and he brings noir full circle with dark, shadowy scenes, angled shots and more. The screenplay itself is sparse, but everything Lang did with his direction made it work.
The Best of Film Noir – The Violence
A discussion of The Big Heat is not complete without some mention of the movie’s violence. The Big Heat is a violent movie, brutal in many ways. Lee Marvin is great as a sadistic character, and you’re glad he’s relegated to the screen. Scene after scene subjects us to violence, either on or off-screen. But don’t be fooled, this doesn’t relegate the movie to typical crime fare…noir is there.
The Best of Film Noir – Trivia And More
The Big Heat has one of the best taglines around:
Somebody’s going to pay…because he forgot to kill me…
When Lee Marvin first sees Glenn Ford face to face, the music in the background is Put the Blame on Mame, a reference to Ford’s performance in Gilda.
Bannion’s wife Katie is played by Jocelyn Brando, older sister of Marlon Brando.
Near the end of film, Dave Bannion has an altercation with his brother-in-law’s old army buddy in the stairwell. When he enters the apartment a second later, the sleeves of his suit are suddenly rolled up.
The street address for the junk yard on Bannyon’s list is 101, yet the number 1024 is seen on a large sign over the yard’s shed.
When Bannion (Glenn Ford) fights with Larry Gordon (Adam Williams) in Gordon’s hotel room, Gordon’s revolver is first seen in the centre of the desk, behind Gordon. When Bannion picks-up the revolver, it is near the right-hand edge of the desk. This move is probably intentional – to allow Bannion to get the revolver without reaching behind Gordon.
Thanks to IMDb for those!
So get your popcorn and soda and settle down for a real film noir treat, The Big Heat.