Although the gangster movie had well and truly established itself as a staple of Hollywood cinema by the early 1950s, it took an Austrian expatriate to unequivocally prove how gritty one could be without having to completely rely on the principles of film noir. Mark Fraser revisits a work which is as straightforward as it is morally ambiguous.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
In his book The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, Tom Gunning makes an interesting point about the director’s approach to the visual narrative of his crisp 1953 American crime classic The Big Heat (1953).
“It completes a development towards a seemingly classical style, in the sense that the film appears to be constructed with a pure economy of storytelling in mind, with few of the experiments Lang tried in the 30s and 40s, with almost no image that stands out for its compositional beauty, no editing that seems to play tricks with traditional continuity, no overt directorial flourishes of any kind,” he wrote.
“Lang’s style in the 50s began to resemble camouflage; the films strive to resemble the very environment they criticise.”
Or, to put it another way, the director opted for the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) approach, producing a remarkably straightforward work which seemingly embraced the spirit of film noir, but somehow managed to eschew many of its guiding aesthetic mechanisms.
This is not to say the work is without atmosphere; nor is it meant to be a criticism of Lang’s part abandonment of Expressionism, a visual idiom which had served him so well in earlier works like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).
It does, however, suggest the film maker had – at least during the last decade of his career – become pragmatic enough to realise that creating moodiness in a gangster movie wasn’t just about having noir lighting and shadows continually infiltrate the frame.
Rather, it came in the form of some no nonsense, straight forward, hard hitting and uncompromising melodrama, something which The Big Heat has in spades.
Given this, it’s not surprising the movie has cemented its place as a true ground breaker in American crime cinema, successfully exposing society’s violent and ugly underbelly, but doing so in a disciplined, unsensational and almost low key way, relying on the building of tension (not to mention the inclusion of some clever subtext) to grab its audience’s attention.
The Big Heat is also a useful historical document given it is – according to British writer Jeffrey Richards – a work which strongly represents “American society and its concerns in the 50s” and reflects “the insecurity lying behind apparent prosperity; righteous indignation that bubbles over into vigilante action; a deep concern with the persuasive spread of corruption; and the paranoid fear of conspiracy” (Richards, 1981).
If anything, this observation shows why the film remains relevant today – despite its age it still touches upon many of the worries that continue to inflict modern life.
At the story’s compromised moral centre is Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a happily married homicide detective who smells a rat after not-very-close fellow officer Tom Duncan (whose face the audience never sees) commits suicide, presumably due to ill-health.
While Bannion’s superiors try to throw him off the scent early on in the investigation, he soon learns that Duncan was on the payroll of crime boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), whose sway with the department appears to extend to his superior Lieutenant Ted Wilkes (Willis Bouchey), but in actual fact reaches a little higher up in the local police hierarchy.
Later, when his seemingly perfect wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) is inadvertently assassinated by a car bomb, the policeman decides to take matters into his own hands by indignantly quitting the force and conducting the hunt himself, a move which directly leads him to Lagana’s vicious muscleman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), his mouthy girlfriend Debby Marsh (a seductive Gloria Grahame) and a criminal syndicate that he already knows is running the city.
Over the course of time some of the characters do indeed become part of the camouflage – Bannion’s vigilantism is a mixture of anger-fuelled personal vendetta and the pursuit of justice, Marsh quickly turns on Stone after he physically scars her (during the now famous off-camera scalding coffee-in-the-face incident), while the weak-willed Wilkes finally comes to the party and stands up to the police department’s real criminal collaborator Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell).
Along the way it also becomes apparent how hidden dysfunction can be found within just about every strata of so-called respectable society.
For instance, the first thing Duncan’s widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) does when she finds her husband’s body slumped over his desk is contact Lagana – and not the district attorney as requested in the dead man’s suicide note – to strike up a blackmail deal.
Meanwhile the self-made syndicate head, who throws lavish parties for his daughter and has a painting of his late mother on the study wall of his well-to-do home, is unable to pull the wool over Bannion’s eyes as the homicide cop indignantly accuses him of building his wealth from “20 years of corruption and murder”.
“You know, you couldn’t plant enough flowers around here to kill the smell,” the policeman snarls in one of the film’s best lines.
And although the snappy dressing Stone lives in the swankiest of bachelor pads, it turns out he is really nothing more than a thuggish sadist who has no compunction when it comes to inflicting pain and violence upon women.
Even the honourable Bannion – whose blissful home life seems to be the story’s only brief moral retreat before it is brutally decimated by a car bomb – has to rely on betrayal (in this case the snitching of the gimpy and aging Selma Parker, played by Edith Evanson, on her boss) in order to obtain one of his key leads.
Then there’s the policeman’s own metamorphosis from honourable law enforcer to cold and vengeful vigilante, a transformation so profound that it even causes Debbie at one point to bitterly accuse the erstwhile content family man of not caring “about anything or anybody”.
Sometime after making The Big Heat, Lang explained his directorial approach to the movie, a strategy that Gunning described as “a minimalist style cut to its essentials” (Gunning, 2000), but in hindsight was one more motivated by the melodramatic content of Sidney Boehm’s script (which itself was based on a serialised novel by William P McGivern).
“You show the protagonist so that the audience can put themselves under the skin of the man,” the film maker said.
“First of all, I use my camera in such a way as to show things, wherever possible, from the viewpoint of the protagonist – in that way the audience identifies itself with the character on the screen and thinks with him.”
Although The Big Heat is a movie which is dominated by performance, it is not entirely lacking when it comes to visual innovation.
While Gunning does have a point vis-a-vis Lang’s economic approach to narrative, it would be remiss to think that this restraint rides roughshod over mise-en-scene.
The fact the lighting (by Charles Lang) is far more conventional than that found in noir movies doesn’t mean it isn’t effective when evoking the underlying sense of dread which permeates the story.
Much of the action – including the opening suicide scene, Katie’s murder, Bannion’s initial run in with Stone at The Retreat and his early confrontation with Lagana at the gangster’s mansion home – all takes place at night, signifying a world which mostly functions under the cover of darkness.
Furthermore, a good portion of the story is acted out indoors, significantly adding to the claustrophobic feel which permeates the movie.
And even when the scenes are set outside, such as the moment when Bannion receives some vital information from Parker as he leaves the car junkyard, the sky is grey and the policeman is seen (in close up) standing behind a wire mesh fence, the composition suggesting his imprisonment.
Lang’s inclusion of the mirror motif, which recurs in the worlds of the widow Duncan and gangster moll Debbie, is also an effective use of symbolism, reiterating not only their eventual duplicity, but also their narcissism.
Never ending battle
Finally there’s the movie’s closing moment, which successfully rebukes the classic Hollywood narrative by adding a clever piece of subtext which pretty much undermines any notion of a completely happy ending.
After cracking the case – and thus vindicating his throw-away-the-book unorthodoxy – Bannion finds himself sitting back at his office desk taking run-of-the-mill police phone calls as if nothing had happened.
As he leaves with some other detectives to investigate a hit and run incident, the men pass a public recruitment poster on the wall which demands: “Give Blood Now.”
The message is obvious – although justice seems to have been done and life has gone full circle for the maverick Bannion, the job is still going to suck him dry; the ongoing fight against society’s underbelly will always take precedence over family.
Or, to put it another way, he will never escape having skin in the game, despite the fact he may or may not have anything meaningly spiritually to gain from playing it.
Emphasising this plague upon modern man is arguably one of The Big Heat’s most enduring legacies.
After all, the movie does not just concern itself with revenge and the pragmatic nature of contrarian justice.
In addition, it questions the high price of personal sacrifice.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed The Big Heat on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse. The Big Heat was released on Blu-ray March 27, 2016.
Tom Gunning: The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, British Film Institute, St Edmundsbury Press, London, 2000, pp 408-433, 435
Jeffrey Richards: “The Big Heat”, The Movie, Volume 5, Chapter 54, Orbis Publishing Ltd, London, 1981 pp 1074
Colin McArthur: The Big Heat, BFI Publishing, London, 1992
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