Appellate Judge Tom Becker thinks coffee and cigarettes are a painful combination.
"Somebody's going to pay…because he forgot to kill me!"
In Fritz Lang's gritty and cynical The Big Heat, there are no heroes, and even that ubiquitous noir denizen, the anti-hero, is a dick—and not the private investigator kind.
When a cop blows his own brains out, Detective Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford, Cowboy) commences what he expects to be a perfunctory investigation. The cop was in ill health, his widow tells Bannion, and that's why he committed suicide.
But after the story hits the newspapers, Bannion gets a call from a woman, a "barfly" who claims to have been intimate with the cop. She doesn't buy the business about "ill health" and gives Bannion some information that suggests the dead cop had a bigger bank account than most police officers.
Bannion blows her off—after all, she's just a barfly—but then, she turns up dead. Defying orders from "upstairs," he starts asking questions and doing his own investigation—which leads to his suspension from the force.
But Bannion soldiers on, uncovering a web of corruption that reaches the highest echelons of society.
Bannion, of course, is not from the highest echelon of society; he's a working-stiff cop with a modest home, plus a wife and a kid. He despises the criminals as much for their high living as for their heinous acts. He's a moralist—sometimes, justifiably, sometimes, priggishly so. A botched hit leads to a tragedy for Bannion and brings out the crusader in him.
But at what cost?
"Costs" are pretty heavy all around in The Big Heat, one of the most brutal entries from the film noir golden age of the 1940s and '50s. Lang's film is unrelentingly grim, and its protagonist a catalyst for destruction not only of the villains, but plenty of collateral damage, as well.
The film contains some of the most gruesome violence against women outside of a slasher movie. It's not the usual noir violence, where a duplicitous dame gets a rap in the mouth or takes a slug, but far more grisly and sadistic. One woman is tortured with lit cigarettes before being strangled; another is blown up in a car; another is brutalized by a hood in a bar; still another is disfigured, famously, by having a scalding pot of coffee thrown in her face.
Most of the women are floozies; they're disposable to the hoodlums and only slightly better regarded by Bannion who, as a protector of the people, has to concern himself with them. The cop marvels at his own good fortune in finding a compatible, respectable wife, whose boots these other women would not be fit to polish.
Counterpointing Bannion's upright but bland domesticity with his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando, Dark Night of the Scarecrow), is the more highly charged relationship between hoodlum Vince Stone (Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou) and his "girl," Debby (Gloria Grahame, The Greatest Show on Earth). He's a high-living, violent, vicious thug; she's a kept girl, but with a recklessly independent edge, a beautiful, wild thing with perhaps a bit too much insight and curiosity for her own—or anyone's—good. Vince has been known to "get rough" with her; she openly provokes him, apparently enjoying the risks and benefits of their volatile pairing. While Vince brags that he can toss her out any time, it's obvious there's too much passion there for anything so simple.
It's no spoiler that Debby ends up being the linchpin in the case; she's easily the most vibrant, complex character in the film. Vain, pampered, with a deceptively feral intelligence, Debby's as dangerous as—and, ultimately, more fearless than—any of the men here, Bannion included. Grahame's performance is indelible, a fierce and heartbreaking portrait, nearly matched by Marvin as her treacherous, malevolent brute of a lover.
Then there's Glenn Ford. Ford was a solid, dependable leading man with 100 films to his credit. He didn't have the kind of distinctive style and personality of a Bogart or Lancaster, and he never got the kind of "great role" that he'd be remembered for, the way actors like Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) and William Holden (Sunset Boulevard) did. Often overshadowed by his co-stars—particularly actresses like Rita Hayworth (Gilda) and Bette Davis (A Stolen Life)—Ford turned in consistently good work playing cowboys, cops, tough guys, and beleaguered average joes. He's very good here, as the tunnel-visioned "every man" who path to salvation leaves inordinate carnage in its wake.
Twilight Time's release of The Big Heat (Blu-ray) is a handsome package that lacks…well, heat. The tech presentation is all-around excellent, with a sharp—but still film-like—1.33:1/1080p high definition full frame image that makes the most of Charles Lang's stark black-and-white cinematography. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio mix is remarkably crisp for a near-60-year-old film, with music and dialogue coming through clearly.
Unfortunately, Twilight Time drops the ball in the extras department. When the company releases lesser-known films like Rapture and My Cousin Rachel, it's enough just have them on home video, and the light supplemental material isn't so much of a problem. But The Big Heat is a pretty well-known noir title, and it's been released before, most recently as part of Sony's Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classic I in 2009, which included featurettes from Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese. For this release, Twilight Time provides its usual suspects: an excellent text essay by Julie Kirgo in an illustrated booklet, an isolated music score track, and a trailer. I realize Twilight Time discs are limited runs (3,000 copies in this case), so it's probably a bit cost prohibitive to produce more supplemental material, but it's a shame they couldn't have made an exception here, or maybe gotten the rights to the featurettes from the Sony disc.
Tough, chilling, and still disturbing nearly 60 years after its release, The Big Heat is seminal noir. While Twilight Time scrimps on the supplements, the excellent technical presentation earns this one a recommend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
• Isolated Score
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