Saturday, April 17, 2021

Movie Reviews: The Big Heat

The Big Heat (1953)
directed by Fritz Lang
This earlier film starred film noir standouts Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford, who were later seen together in Human Desire, also directed by Fritz Lang. 
It is one of the better noir films narratively and visually. 
Although the film is set during a time in what later generations view as either a wonderful highpoint or ugly nadir of male supremacy where women stayed in the kitchen and men made all the decisions, The Big Heat's male hero compliantly washes dishes, does other household chores, and apologizes to his wife when he gives offense. 
The man may be bringing home the money but if he rules the roost, it's only because that's how his wife wants it. It's pretty clear who makes most of the final decisions at home and it's not the man. The hero views his role as provider and protector, not necessarily as boss. 
Although the hero talks tough and upsets the applecart because he's set on justifiable revenge, it's the women whose actions drive the story and make things happen. It's also, for good or bad, the women who often pay the price. This last is so pronounced that one could make an argument that the hero is something of an unwitting "femme fatale" ( homme fatale?) himself. 
Many people are worse off for knowing him. The hero tries to do the right thing, even when he's on his roaring rampage of revenge, but he often inadvertently makes things worse for other people, especially women
Today's viewer may think that the single minded Dudley DoRight hero could had still reached his goals and gotten less people hurt if he had been more flexible in his approach and his morals. Still, The Big Heat is not as cynical as some other film noirs. You could watch this as a straight crime drama and enjoy it solely on that level.
A man shoots himself after writing a note to the district attorney. We later learn that this man was a ranking police officer. However his wife Bertha Duncan (Jeannette Nolan) takes the note and places in her bank safety deposit box. She also makes a phone call before contacting the police. 
Police leaders assign the Duncan suicide case to straight arrow homicide detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford). The case should be open and shut. Cops lead stressful lives. Bertha says that her husband was depressed and sick. These things happen. Nothing to see here. Move along. Dave is initially happy to do just that. 
No one likes bothering a cop's widow. Dave wants to close the investigation and get home to his attractive, friendly and supportive wife Katie, (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon Brando's older sister) a real Irish blowtop in Dave's words, and his little daughter.
Dave is not as far along in the department as he should be at his age because of his unshakable habit of stepping on toes and ignoring political niceties, a trait that exasperates his immediate supervisor, Lieutenant Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey). Wilks is only a few years away from retirement. He doesn't want to lose his pension to Dave's intractable moral sense. But win, lose, or draw, for better or for worse, Katie is in her husband's corner. 
Katie appreciates Dave's integrity even if she doesn't appreciate some of his other quirks. Katie will tell Dave exactly what she doesn't like in no uncertain terms. However, Dave and Katie love each other very much. They're in it for the long haul.
There are complications in the Duncan case. A B-girl/lady of the night named Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) tells Dave that she was the late Mr. Duncan's mistress. Lucy is adamant that her late lover was not in bad health. Lucy insists that Bertha is lying. Dave is contemptuous of Lucy's tale and skeptical of her motives because of Lucy's lifestyle. Dave is a judgmental fellow. 
Nevertheless, Dave pays Bertha a follow up visit to address some inconsistencies raised by Lucy's allegations. Bertha is NOT happy to see Dave again. The grieving widow that Dave initially met has been replaced by a cold calculating woman who wields her sarcastic politeness and outrage as weapons and shields. 
Dave barely has time to be intrigued by Bertha's terse responses to his questions before he learns that Lucy was murdered. 
Dave's police superiors warn him away from investigating Lucy's murder and from contacting Bertha again. Period. This order comes from the department leadership. 
But telling Dave not to do something usually has the opposite impact. When an anonymous phone caller insults Katie and threatens Dave to get him to stop asking questions, Dave leans on the city Mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). Dave knows that Lagana has his fingers in every dirty deal. Why should this time be any different? 
Dave also encounters Lagana's top enforcer and partner Vince Stone ( decorated WW2 Marine veteran Lee Marvin in a compelling and convincing role). Marvin's stentorian voice, lanky physique, natty style, coiled energy, and casual cruelty almost steal the entire movie. Dave learns that kicking the hornet's nest can hurt. A tragedy strikes Dave close to home. Dave has a professional setback. But a man with nothing left to lose is often the game's most dangerous player. Vince Stone's girlfriend is one Debbie Marsh (Gloria Grahame). 

Grahame plays the attractive sexpot. Again. The difference is that Grahame's Debbie is self-aware enough to know that Vince is not a good man. The jewelry, vacations, furs, and lifestyle that Vince provides for Debbie cost more than money. 
The question is how much Debbie is willing to pay. Debbie may seem ditzy but it's all an act. Debbie is a wisecracking dame who can stand up for herself. Vince is amused by this. Sometimes. 
Debbie has seen what happens to people, especially women, who know too much. The Mob doesn't like loose ends. Debbie's a bad girl but in a different life she could have been Dave's wife. Debbie's impressed with how Dave handles himself. Debbie wonders if she can hit it off with Dave and more importantly if Dave can protect her. 
The Big Heat has one of the most famous scenes of (offscreen) cinematic noir brutality. The film was an entertaining examination of how institutional corruption, fear, cruelty, and stubborn self-righteousness can mess up people's lives. 
Dave's search for one good man or woman to help him against the thieves risks permanently embittering him. As one fellow tells Dave, regular people aren't paid to stick their necks out or take risks. Viewers then and now may watch this film and wonder how easy it is for the people who make up "The Thin Blue Line" to start hating those they "serve and protect". 
The Big Heat is unsubtle in imagery. Debbie is usually attired in slinky white dresses or fur coats; she's effusive in manner, flirtatious, and expansive in her motion. After a life changing event, Debbie dresses in dark clothes and is far more physically restrained though arguably more dangerous. Ford, Marvin, and Grahame all have great dialogue and cool one liners. The film tips its hat to Ford's previous role in Gilda.
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