The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
“… the father means more than the football player. They come and go but Dad’s around for keeps.” – spicy gangster moll Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame)
It may have required a bit of a leap forward in my on-going, fairly comprehensive (minus a missing silent film or two), mostly chronological Fritz Lang retrospective (as I’m only officially up to his 1941 technicolor oater Western Union) but considering I’d already recently broken my self-imposed protocol by jumping a few films ahead to watch and write a piece contrasting two of the director’s more intriguing Hollywood sister films shot consecutively — namely the excellent, if somewhat formulaic The Woman in the Window (1944) with its startlingly similar though far more bold and auteur-driven follow-up Scarlet Street (1945) — for an upcoming noir-themed issue of Offscreen, I figured it was okay to leapfrog even further ahead (for a director who burned as many bridges with producers as he did, Lang certainly remained prolific) and attend a 16mm rooftop screening for the film pretty much universally recognized as the Lang masterpiece of that next decade, the infamously tough (especially on the women), astonishingly angry noir crime thriller The Big Heat.
Opening with a shockingly intimate first-person suicide by gunshot to the head (a moment I admit to having an even more personal connection with, as Tromaville President himself Lloyd Kaufman would eventually have me write in this exact scene for him to direct, in much more Tromatized fashion naturally – including absurdly overblown head explosion – for my single Troma writing credit, the 2 hour plus long scatological train wreck of bad taste called Terror Firmer), with the wife (Jeanette Nolan) appearing at the top of the dark stairwell and instead of reacting in horror, immediately covering up evidence of criminal activities before picking up the phone, leading then to a series of scenes linked by calls, with the technological transmissions revealing a city-wide criminal enterprise (in similar cinematic fashion to how it was done in an early Lang “Mabuse” film), its tentacles not just reaching the common local thug made it good, but winding its way into the top political world and right on into the police force, its head mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), lying in his luxurious bed in silk pajamas as his buff and robed henchman George (Chris Alcaide) brings him the phone (hinting at something – well – decidedly queer going on here), director Lang announces, in exciting visual terms and perfectly realized pacing (something the film manages to increase breathlessly all throughout over its relative brief 90 minute running time), that he isn’t gonna bring us some standard, even good Hollywood-style crime film. Oh, no.
This is gonna be Lang infused cinema, full-speed ahead, his vision harkening back to the paranoid world-view, the nightmarish urban landscapes, that the pioneering filmmaker had so brilliantly conjured up during his early German years (with the only thing missing, alas, being the feverishly crazed expressionistic style, with the replacement of the standard noir chiaroscuro lighting being as aesthetically bold as the more ‘realist’ crime film of Hollywood allowed itself to go – a moody lighting aesthetic that, while effective, just can’t quite reach the dark hypnotic poetry of the early Lang epics), where suicides droves plots, and romantic relationships were based not on love but something insidious and destructive, where a pall of corruption, led by a Mabusian overlord (in this case Lagana), hangs over all like an irredeemable sickness, rendering the moral individual powerless (or, as in the case of Glenn Ford’s Sgt Bannion, forced to turn as violent and ugly as the criminals around him, leading ultimately to what might appear to be a 50’s ‘happy ending’ on the surface, yet reveals more than its share of ambiguity just beneath).
With the righteously driven Bannion at the center of the narrative, deeply contemptuous of the corruption he learns is above and around him, preventing justice from being served, and the scary mob second-in-command Vince Stone (Lee Marvin, cementing his immortal role as the unrelenting sociopath of classic Hollywood cinema), a character driven by misogynistic violence, swirling around the outskirts, The Big Heat is a film propelled by a shocking level of anger (and that’s even before the car explosion intended for Bannion at the end of the first act that transforms the cop from loving father and honest cop to avenging angel, driven by a need for vengeance, dangerously teetering into the abyss of criminality that he has fought against) that must have been positively stunning to the audience at the time, possibly explaining its lukewarm box office returns, as many likely weren’t quite ready for it; just another of the many – admittedly often self-inflicted — strikes against Lang, leading to him, alas, never being able to attain anywhere near the autonomy (and epic brilliance) he achieved during his reign in Germany.
While his Hollywood career was still worthwhile and dotted with a few cinematic achievements (The Big Heat from the 50’s, Scarlet Street from the 40’s, and You Only Live Once and Fury from the 30’s being at the top of that list… as well as his final and only effort in the 60’s, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), the American output overall has the sense of being less visionary and more artistically constrictive, often having the feel of Hollywood product, which isn’t bad per se (as that studio-controlled assembly line fare was pretty damn good over those decades), just not on the level of the transformative, cinema-changing cinema Lang was capable of when left to his own devices and in full control (which apparently also led to him being unrelentingly cruel to cast and crew, berating and humiliating everyone around him, something that just wasn’t gonna happen, for better or worse, in union-driven Hollywood as it did in Germany).
As indicated in the clever (and wonderfully delivered) quote above by Stone’s wise-ass, always on the edge of trouble (until she gets it) gangster moll (with an eventual heart-of-gold) Debby (with naughty child-voiced Grahame delivering, along with Marvin and Ford, an unforgettable performance in the film), The Big Heat is chock full of darkly amusing Freudian takes on family dynamics, Oedipal and otherwise, with Bannion’s (tragically doomed) home life of equality (with the cop and his wife shown to be sharing each other’s drinks and cigarettes as they mutually engage in domestic chores) portrayed against the driven and combative world of Lagana’s, with a deceased mother, her portrait still hovering over his actions, who Lagana tells us he never felt he measured up to, and a daughter who wants him to throw her rich parties but not attend, and no wife mentioned (instead, with buff George always skulking about).
While Debby gets her revenge against Stone after he permanently scars her (ostensibly destroying her vanity, with her constantly admiring herself in the penthouse apartment’s mirrors beforehand) with a scalding hot pot of coffee (in a scene, in terms of ahead-of-its-time shocking brutality, as potent as that other trendsetting example from the decade, that being Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer groggily awaking to the harrowing shrieks and fitful glimpses of Cloris Leachman’s Christina Bailey being horribly tortured to death in Robert Aldrich’s late noir classic Kiss Me Deadly just a few years later) as well as ultimately manages to be the real redeeming force running through the film (with Debby ultimately doing the killing for Bannion, wilfully saving his soul from being swallowed up by dark vengeance), there is an astonishingly cruel streak towards women going on in the film, from Stone’s offscreen torturing (including stated cigarette burns) to death of a call girl, punished for whistleblowing to Bannion about the criminal reasons for the initial suicide of the film, to Stone then putting out a cigarette in another girl’s hand (on-screen, this time) and on into the aforementioned infamous scalding coffee scene (something not usually a part of the Lang world… he might show women as untrustworthy, but rarely as such open sites of torture and brutality).
Of course, Stone does get his comeuppance, in gloriously brutal fashion, but has the world he inhabited really changed? Sgt Bannion is back at his desk at the conclusion, with the corruption exposed, but at the cost of destroyed happiness, a completely destroyed domestic life. With the threat of the build-up of crime – and a new Lagana – always a threat (if not an inevitability), it’s hard to imagine it as an accident that as the righteous Bannion hurries out of the precinct to the site of the city’s next crime (a ‘hit and run’), one that seems as arbitrary as the initial suicide, he walks past a looming sign that reads ‘Give Blood… Now’.