Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm
Based on a Newspaper Serial by: William P. McGivern
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin, Alexander Scourby, Jeanette Nolan
Running Time: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I almost didn’t take up the offer from Powerhouse to review The Big Heat as I figured I already had the film on DVD, so could watch it in my own time. However, being a fan of film noir and director Fritz Lang, it’s a film I’ve been keen to see for a while, so I figured this would force me to finally get it watched. And thank God I did, because The Big Heat is even better than I had hoped.
Based on a Saturday Evening Post serial (very closely according to the commentary included here), The Big Heat opens with the suicide of Tom Duncan, a man we soon learn is a police officer. His wife Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) comes down the stairs after hearing the fatal gunshot, but rather than collapse in shock or distress, she takes a look at his suicide note and heads to the telephone. She doesn’t ring the police or hospital though, she rings crime lord Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) to tell him what happened.
Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is given the case and is all set to sign it off as a straightforward suicide, before he is told by Duncan’s mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) that it certainly wasn’t. This piques Bannion’s interest, but he isn’t fully sold on Chapman’s theory until she ends up dead. When he digs deeper, his cosy family life is attacked and the case becomes a mission for revenge more than a need to solve the mystery.
This pushed all the right buttons for me. I like my film noirs tough and this is one of the toughest. It’s famous for a scene where Lee Marvin throws boiling coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face and indeed that scene is still shocking in its brutality. Elsewhere the film is as hard as nails though. The dialogue pulls no punches with the sort of sharp put downs and straight talking noir is known for. Our protagonist Bannion, although clearly the ‘good guy’, isn’t always on the right side of the law either in his approach to nailing Lagana and his head goon Vince Stone (Marvin). When things get personal, he becomes relentless and emotionless in his quest for vengeance.
Saying that, the film offers just enough heart and soul to its characters to allow the audience to side with Bannion. Also providing emotional resonance is the sad story of Grahame’s character, Vince’s girl, Debby Marsh. She’s a no-nonsense gal who gives as good as she gets with regards to backchat, but she doesn’t deserve the cruel treatment she gets from Vince and you can see behind her eyes that she’s not happy with her lot in life. So when her and Bannion’s stories get intertwined, you root for her as much as the central cop ‘hero’. There’s a particularly touching scene between them both at the end too.
What I really liked about the film though, and it’s another way the film hit my sweet spot, is how economic it is. I love no-nonsense films that get the job done swiftly and deftly and this certainly fits the bill. Whenever Lang feels it’s not necessary to see something on screen we don’t and nothing is overly spelt out in the screenplay. The film is short and sharp, thundering through its 90 minutes to a satisfying conclusion.
I’m more familiar with Lang’s German work than his American films, so I was surprised to see this lacking some of the extravagant visual invention of films like Metropolis or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. However, the film is still very atmospheric, with a heavy use of strong shadows and smoke. There’s some nice camera movement too, such as the smooth reveal of Bannion hiding behind a door after a woman does some sneaky detective work for him.
Performances are solid too, with Grahame standing out in particular and Marvin impressing relatively early in his illustrious career.
It’s an incredible film that deserves its reputation as one of the best noirs of its era. Tough as iron and sharp as a razor, it’s lean and mean, rattling along at quite a pace and shying away from nothing. It still has enough soul to offer some depth and drama though, making for a stunning all round package. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
The Big Heat has been re-released by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of their new Indicator label in the UK. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality are both excellent. The picture is sharp, clean and richly toned.
Powerhouse have also included plenty of special features with the set. These include:
– Audio commentary by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
– New filmed appreciation by film historian Tony Rayns
– Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat
– Michael Mann on The Big Heat
– Isolated score
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
– Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by critic Glenn Kenny
This is clearly a vast improvement over Columbia’s vanilla DVD release. The two big name contributions are welcome, passionate inclusions, but Tony Rayns’ interview and the commentary are the true gems. Lang’s life and career is deeply explored in the former, on top of Rayns’ thoughts on the film, and the handful of historians bounce off each other nicely in the commentary, providing a rich and lull-free cornucopia of background information and analysis.
The booklet is excellent as always too, offering up a handful of essays, interviews and period reviews to top off an already superb package.