The first thing we see in ‘The Big Heat’ is a pistol being loaded behind the desk of Officer Tom Duncan. Duncan, a dirty cop on the payroll of Mike Lagana, the crooked mobster who has a strangle hold on the city he works for, has finally reached his breaking point. We hear the report of a gunshot and see Duncan collapse, still at his desk. His wife rushes down the staircase to investigate the noise and then witnessing the aftermath, naturally, screams in horror. The camera zooms in to the suicide note and then fades to black. As an opening scene, it’s definitely an attention grabber to be sure.
The house soon fills up with other cops, who mostly mull around and collect little bits of evidence. Among them is detective Dave Bannion, the ‘hero’ of our story, played here by Glenn Ford in a very layered and tough performance. The aforementioned note is nowhere to be seen when the cops arrive. Dave Bannion, being the senior officer on the scene collects a statement from the widow, quickly decides this was a clear cut case of suicide due to personal reasons and leaves it at that, never intending to return to this case. If the story ends here, much more tragedy can be avoided, but of course, return he will, as he inevitably gets drawn into the tangled web here that will ultimately put him on a collision course with the powerful thugs who have the city and his own police force in a vice grip of corruption and violence.
The widow Mrs. Duncan played here by Jeanette Nolan in a role that requires her to be both clearly secretive and understatedly desperate, we ultimately learn was responsible for removing her husband’s suicide note, which she then hid in the safe deposit box of a person she must contact daily less its contents be revealed. Mrs. Duncan has also it appears taken over her husband’s role of accepting bribery from Lagana, in return for making sure that the contents of her husband’s suicide note remain protected and undiscovered.
Bannion as stated is ready to move on to the next case, when he receives a fateful call from a local barfly named Lucy Chapman. Chapman tells him a story entirely different than the one he heard at the deceased Officer Duncan’s house. Ms. Chapman boldly claims to have been carrying on an affair with Mr. Duncan for the past few months of his life, and that he was planning to divorce his wife to be with her. She also shares her own theory of why Duncan chose to end his life. Now newly intrigued, he returns to question Mrs. Duncan one more time, with these new details, but to no avail as this time she coldly sends him away with nothing. That very same night Lucy Chapman is found on the side of the road, tortured and murdered. Bannion is now not going to be turned back, regardless of the cost.
However, no sooner than this news gets out his superiors are jumping all over him to steer clear of this case, and mind his own affairs. But Bannion, a stubborn and persistent man who adheres to an unbreakable code that people can only get away with adhering to in movies, pushes on anyway, directly confronting Lagana, and in words harsher than anyone has undoubtedly ever spoken to him, accuses him of being the rotten crook he is, something no one else in town has the courage (or stupidity) to do. This of course leads to severe consequences for Detective Bannion, who it seems has taken it upon himself to wage an un-winnable one man war against Lagana’s powerful mob.
Glenn Ford’s Detective Dave Bannion is as straight and narrow a movie hero as they come. This is not the dark shady womanizing anti-hero played in the kind of noir films you see featuring Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. No, this is basically Randolph Scott, minus the horses and western garb and with a whole lot more of an explosive edge to him. If not for Glenn Ford’s rough and forceful presence in which we see that he can go from warm and cordial to rough and ready psychopath who is willing to punch your teeth out at a second’s notice you could very much risk turning him into a Beaver Cleaver kind of character. That’s probably part of the point though, in regards to the movie’s secondary theme. Part of what makes this movie so absorbing to watch is seeing the extreme violence visited upon the kind of characters you don’t normally anticipate to see in movies of this era featuring that level of violence. This movie definitely proves to be a jarring jolt to the system and lets you know that no characters are safe from danger right from the get go.
That said, I knew we were headed for tragedy in this movie during the first scene I saw with Detective Bannion sitting down to a nice big steak dinner with his lovely and gracious wife Katie, played here by Jocelyn Brando (the older sister of Marlon Brando for you trivia buffs out there) who comes across as pretty much the most perfect wife there ever was. Wives in movies like this exist to serve two purposes, to either be a thankless worrisome nag to her husband begging him to stay out of the trouble he is in, or on the flip side, to be nicer and more sincerely sweet and overly supportive and romantic than any woman in real life has perhaps ever been in order to create the image of the absolutely perfect domestic situation. In the latter of these two situations, the wife or girlfriend can also usually be counted on to be murdered sometime before the movie is over, in order to create a revenge story line for her heroic husband.
Now to consider the underlying themes of this movie for a bit, we must ask at what point is being the hero in an absolutely hopeless situation no longer the honorable thing to do? When, if ever, is the cost finally so high that the right thing to do is to just sit back and mind your own business while evil men do their bidding? That seems to be the big question posed by Fritz Lang in ‘The Big Heat’, which on one level is your standard gangster versus gritty detective noir movie, but on another is a tough moral quandary of a film with no easy answers. Also, normally in these kinds of movies you have a femme fatale whose job it is to be the downfall of every male character who crosses her path. In this movie though, that tradition is turned on its ear and we seem to have something more akin to a ‘him fatale’ (I fully admit that was a most horrible pun, but I am now too committed to it to hit the backspace button.) in Glenn Ford’s character, who proves to be very, very bad luck for every single female character he interacts with in this movie. Bannion in the end, may get his revenge, prove his point, and win this war, but there is no putting back the pieces of his broken life.
Alexander Scourby plays Mike Lagana here, the big bad gangster who controls the town and has everyone and their second cousin on the payroll. Aside from this film Scourby is perhaps best remembered for his best selling recordings of his reading of the entire King James Bible that he narrates with such authority, that one reviewer stated you feel compelled to put on a nice suit and tie and sit up right while listening to it. In this film he does not command nearly the same respect or attention. I found most of my attention going to Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame’s secondary characters here. Nothing against Scourby, but he just didn’t seen to be that interesting of a villain here for my tastes. This film would have been better served ( or at least would have entertained me more) perhaps by a stronger leading actor in the role such as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, or Orson Welles to name a few, in my humble opinion anyway.
Lee Marvin, who is one of my all time favorite and most iconic actors, appears here as a tough menacing old alley cat with a pension for beating up on women. The most famous scene in ‘The Big Heat’ is the one in which Lee Marvin’s character Vince Stone, the chief lackey of Mike Lagana, throws a scalding hot pot of coffee into the face of his girlfriend Gloria Grahame’s character Debby Marsh (after learning that she had been assisting Bannion in his case against Lagana), leaving her permanently and horrifically scarred for life. Now the execution of this scene and the performance by the actors is good enough that I never stopped to ponder the obvious, that if that coffee was hot enough to cause that kind of damage to skin tissue, then am I to assume the original plan that Marvin’s character had was to pour a cup or more of said liquid down his own throat? Ouch. I like my coffee hot as the next guy, but that’s a little too much to say the absolute least.
Then again, I’m certainly no Lee Marvin, who was such a stone cold bad ass that he could most likely turn that pot of scalding coffee into an iced mocha with nothing but an icy glare and a little drop of chocolate. In any event, I can ignore for the purposes of this movie review that this particular pot of coffee when thrown in a woman’s face has the same kind of reaction normally reserved for dangerous acidic substances, but as Lee Marvin himself said in a later interview, thousands of angry wives who thus pitched pots into their husbands laps and faces in the years after this film’s release were no doubt severely disappointed with the outcome that this movie’s make up team achieved.
Gloria Grahame brought a lot of youthful energy to her role, which nicely contrasted the gruff reserve of Lee Marvin. Right from the start of the movie she is prancing about in that playful teenage kind of way, doing and saying things that none of the other male associates would think of for fear of their lives. It is this combination of brash playfulness and naiveté to the dangerous nature of the people she’s associated with that is ultimately her downfall though. She still proves to be an unpredictable handful even after she is given the scars in that famous coffee scene. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and unfortunately for Mrs. Duncan, after Debby finds out about the letter she is protecting, she finds this out the hard way.
Glenn Ford is a powerhouse in his own right here. His intensity in this role is downright frightening at times as we see him on several occasions nearly strangle his adversaries to death. This will prove to be the deciding factor in his war with Lagana, who, even after making a failed attempt on his life, fails to take this threat as seriously as he should, being more concerned with the political ramifications of going after Bannion, than, as he should be, of Bannion crashing through his window and beating him to death with his bare hands.
The criminals in this movie are no doubt every bit the scum that Bannion says they are, but as said above, in the end, when the case is all wrapped up, you wonder if beneath the tough veneer that if he could, Bannion would wish to go back and just leave well enough alone. In the end, I suspect not, as his own wife told him in a touching scene, she married him because of the kind of man he was, and were he to change, he would have had her to deal with, but still, at the very least, he would have had her.
My final verdict for this movie is a definitive thumbs up. I would not call this my favorite noir, but it is a very solid one nonetheless. I didn’t love this one as much as I expected to going in, but having just watched ‘The Third Man’ for the first time I was probably coming in with my expectations a bit on the high side. That being said, there was certainly enough to enjoy and think about here to warrant giving this movie the four star treatment.
The Big Heat gets a four out of five: GREAT.