The Big Heat April 9, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Fritz Lang, Gloria Grahame , trackback
What’s the best director-actor-actress triumverate that made at least two non-sequel pictures together? A good choice might be John Ford, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, who made The Quiet Man, Rio Grande and The Wings of Eagles together. There’s also Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who did To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Otto Preminger, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney followed up Laura with Where the Sidewalk Ends six years later. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman paired Liv Ullmann with Max von Sydow three times and Erland Josephson a total of eight times. My personal favorite, though, might be Fritz Lang’s two films with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame - The Big Heat and Human Desire, released in 1953 and 1954, respectively. Lang had pulled a similar trick before, teaming Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea for The Woman in the Window in 1944 and Scarlet Street the following year.
At the risk of repeating myself, I find Fritz Lang’s films, both from his days in Germany and after working in America, remarkably timeless and entertaining. Each time I watch a film he directed, with very few exceptions, I refuse to believe Lang isn’t one of the top five or ten filmmakers of all time. You could isolate his output in either language and his legend is still secured. When combining the two periods, it becomes apparent that he had a career to rival most anyone, in longevity, quality and quantity. His ability to evolve from silents to sound films is equally impressive. Only a handful of other directors were successful in both, and arguably none as much so as Lang. If there’s any knock against him, it would seem to be that he never reached the heights of films like Metropolis and M after fleeing Germany Obviously unfair, this criticism fails to take into account the creative and monetary limitations he faced in Hollywood. Perhaps it also undervalues how impressive his English language work often was.
I previously touted Scarlet Street as a good candidate for the honor of Lang’s best English language film, an irrelevant title only important for discussion purposes anyway. Though I’m not exactly wavering on my suggestion since it is a vital and essential piece of cinema’s darker side, maybe I wasn’t being completely fair to The Big Heat, a film that typifies everything great about movies before they became modernized with foul language, nudity and blood-soaked violence. Those three additions to movie screens all have a time and place and have been used brilliantly by scores of filmmakers, but wouldn’t films have been a lot less interesting if taboos had never existed so that creative filmmakers could circumvent them? I see classic movies as fascinating precisely because they don’t have those forbidden elements out in the open.
In The Big Heat, we see shocking moments of violence that make much more of an impact than the climactic hail of bullets exchanged between Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin. Ford’s character, Dave Bannion, is a respected police sergeant with a loving wife (played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister) and young daughter. He seems to have a happy marriage and a blossoming career, stunted only by corruption in the upper ranks. There’s no hint of a dark or sadistic side and Bannion appears to be the rare noir cop protagonist without an obvious fatal flaw (the violent tendencies of Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground and Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends are two examples that immediately spring to mind). Then he perceives his family being threatened and Bannion becomes possessed by the struggle to protect them.
The wallop he gives George, a goon of the syndicate boss Mike Lagana, is unexpectedly vicious and forceful. Ford transforms from stand-up police officer to live wire in an instant. After tragedy strikes home and he’s forced to go on leave, Bannion’s hair-trigger violence begins to parallel the sadistic Vince Stone (Marvin), never more so than when he throws a conniving police widow against the wall and begins choking her. His savagery, interrupted by a couple of uniformed officers barging in, had progressed from an earlier altercation with Larry Gordon, the man who planted dynamite in his car. Bannion had just set up Gordon for a certain death at the hands of his mobster buddies, grinning almost uncontrollably as he tells the thug his plan. There’s never any indication that Bannion feels a twinge of conflict that this guy will be in the river in a few hours.
I’m not saying I disagree with Bannion’s actions, but the lack of emotion from Ford (who’s really superb throughout), that he’s giving Gordon a fate much worse than if Bannion just shot him at that moment, is downright startling for a film from 1953. This is Death Wish territory in the decade of Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie & Harriet. Lang was able to defy the more conservative audience’s expectations by peeling away at what was generally considered acceptable at the time. By showing such unexpectedly violent behavior from the good guy of the story, with whom we empathize, The Big Heat provokes the viewer to take notice at what’s being shown. This type of audience stimulant is an exhilarating and effective use of violence in film. If a character did the same thing in a film or television show today though, it would barely register at all.
The more famous scene of violence from The Big Heat, and one that actually might still prompt quite a reaction if it were done today, is when Lee Marvin’s character Stone scalds his girlfriend Debby’s face with a pot of steaming hot coffee. The act is not shown on camera, but we see the aftermath in the form of the scarred left side of her face just before Debby gets her own revenge against Stone. The scene is reminiscent of Cagney shoving a grapefruit into his lady friend’s face at the breakfast table in The Public Enemy, 22 years earlier but prior to the implementation of the production code. A big difference between the two is that Cagney’s fit seems more humiliating and degrading than the sadistic rage that comes from Marvin. A little grapefruit juice is nothing compared to a half-scarred face.
The java-burned victim is played by Gloria Grahame, who, in full disclosure, I think I may be in love with. Grahame has long been one of my favorite actresses and, despite popping up in classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and winning an Academy Award for The Bad and the Beautiful, deserved a better film career. The talented beauty had perhaps her best role as the female lead in Nicholas Ray’s brilliant In a Lonely Place, my favorite of Ray’s films and one I try to mention here as often as possible. After Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959, she pretty much stopped acting in films, instead taking television and stage work before dying from cancer at the age of 57. She also had the odd distinction of marrying both Nicholas Ray and his son (her stepson) Anthony Ray, star of the John Cassavetes film Shadows, and having children with both men.
Grahame’s character in The Big Heat knows the type of guy she’s involved with in Stone, but accepts his volatility as part of the price of living a financially charmed existence. She hints at a sadness from a poverty-filled past she never wants to revisit, even if it means being with crooks like Stone. Unlike so many gangster molls and femmes fatale, Debby is refreshingly honest with Bannion, never hiding her motives or betraying his loyalty. Her initial seductive interest in him, probably as a result of seeing Stone cower away from the suspended cop like a retreating puppy, changes when Debby takes refuge with Bannion following the coffee scalding. The sensitive, almost domestic kindness she shows Bannion seems to help him find redemption from his spiraling violent streak. Grahame is memorable and compelling in her performance, showing us a woman much brighter than she initially seems.
Likewise, Glenn Ford embodies Bannion with an everyman quality that separates him from so many main characters associated with film noir. He’s neither a ticking time bomb, ready to explode when given the littlest opportunity, nor an emotionally wounded shell who’s unable to function in society. Bannion is the seemingly reasonable man, an ordinary citizen who could be any one of us. For me, what makes The Big Heat fascinating is its exploration of the depths a man can plummet to avenge wrongs committed against his family. Unlike many of the articles I’ve read, I really don’t see the film as primarily about one man against a city of corruption. The focus instead seems to be on the riveting transformation of Bannion as his family life disintegrates and he becomes bent on exacting revenge. His motivating factor is the vengeance he craves, not a noble fight against corruption.
There’s another interpretation I’ve read about The Big Heat, most notably by Roger Ebert in his “The Great Movies” essay, that places Bannion as an oblivious angel of death for the female characters he encounters. I disagree with this take as well, and would argue that each death is more a result of circumstance than Bannion’s actions. Lucy Chapman, the mistress of the dead police officer, is murdered shortly after contacting Bannion, but his involvement is completely tangential to her death. Chapman’s demise comes as a result of her own actions, with Bannion’s role merely as a dutiful police officer doing what he’s been instructed to do. Their meeting and her death subsequently get Bannion involved with Lagana, escalated by the threatening phone call to his house. It’s also unlikely Bannion could have foreseen his car being loaded with explosives based solely on his visit to Lagana’s house since the murder of a police sergeant would logically raise several eyebrows, even in a city plagued by corruption.
The death of Mrs. Duncan, the police officer’s widow, comes the closest to being caused by Bannion because it came as a direct result of telling Debby the consequences for Stone if she were dead. However, by this point, Debby began to serve as a substitute for Bannion’s wife and he was telling her about his work (now being done without the aid of his police credentials) just as he had his wife at the beginning of the movie. There’s little reason to think, based on what we’re shown, that Bannion was intending for Debby to kill Mrs. Duncan. Debby’s own death, an inevitable conclusion given her circumstances and her actions, comes as a result of her quest for revenge against Stone for scarring her face. Bannion is present, but far from directly responsible. The idea that his encounters with women lead to their deaths is certainly an interesting one, but any theory as to his culpability, whether implicit or direct, seems flawed.
The three principals of The Big Heat re-teamed the next year for Human Desire, based on an Emile Zola novel and previously filmed by Jean Renoir as La bête humaine. The plot involves Ford’s Korean War vet returning to his old railroad job and becoming involved with Grahame, whose husband (played by Broderick Crawford) is Ford’s co-worker. It’s probably second-tier Lang, but it makes a nice companion piece to the earlier film. Grahame gets more time on screen and her character’s ambiguous actions give the film an interesting spin on what at times appears to be another variation of the Double Indemnity/The Postman Always Rings Twice kind of story. Even if it’s just to watch Ford and Grahame again, I’d imagine strong admirers of The Big Heat would also enjoy Human Desire quite a bit.
While The Big Heat can be found on DVD in a good (if overpriced) edition from Sony/Columbia, Human Desire is still unreleased from the same studio. The disc for the earlier title has only a re-release trailer and an advertising gallery, but the picture quality, after the first few minutes of frequent dust and debris spots, is especially impressive for a DVD that came out in 2001. The Columbia Pictures library was well-represented in the earlier days of DVD, with strong transfers and occasional featurettes, but Sony has more recently been content on mostly re-packaging a few titles here and there in sets without turning their attention to the unreleased films still waiting for their digital debuts. That’s rather disappointing for consumers anxious to get their hands on deserving titles like Human Desire, though there is a Japanese release that appears to be of good quality in the DVD Beaver review (here) and is enhanced in anamorphic widescreen. Both of the Lang-Ford-Grahame films are excellent and worth owning, but The Big Heat is an essential, a borderline masterpiece of raw, visceral violence and man’s animalistic need for revenge.