Old 01-29-2009, 07:00 PM
Fritz Lang's The Big Heat

The Big Heat (1953)

Fritz Lang was quite an amazing director. He tended to make films that focused on dark subjects; films that you don't easily forget about once you've seen them. He gave us a glimpse of an eerie future in "Metropolis" and told the story of a child murderer, played brilliantly by Peter Lorre, in "M". So when Lang decides to try his hand at film noir, should we expect the same old stereotypical kind that we've seen before? Certainly not.

The film begins with the suicide of a policeman. The policeman's widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), tells the cop investigating the suicide, Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), that he killed himself because he was sick. Later, he is approached by Lucy (Dorothy Green), who claims to have had an affair with Mr. Duncan and that there was no reason for him to kill himself. When Lucy turns up dead, Bannion confronts a known mob boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), thinking that he must know what happened. Bannion proceeds to threaten him and beat up one of his bodyguards. This only puts Bannion in further danger as he continues his search for the truth.

At first, this seemed like it would be just like any other film noir out there, but Lang quickly find his own dark path to steer this film down. Overall, it's a mystery and a revenge plot tied in one. However, there is also an over-arching theme of death as Bannion does whatever he has to do to get to the bottom of this case, but it is not just the case that becomes his concern. One can't simply insult a mob boss and expect no consequences. After the incident with Lagana, events occur that make this a personal vendetta for Bannion and when it gets personal, we know that the stakes become much higher while judgment and morals take a backseat to revenge.

What Lang does do marvelously in this film is create Bannion's two separate worlds. We get his "work world" established early on when he starts the Duncan case, but we are also given scenes from his life at home with his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando), and his daughter, Joyce (Linda Bennett). But in an incredibly shocking scene, these two worlds suddenly clash together. When his wife goes to get a baby sitter for their daughter, the car explodes, killing her. This explosion was actually meant for Dave, but sheer luck saved him, and now his two worlds have merged into one.

He never even thought of how the consequences of his actions could have an impact on his home life. Now he proceeds motivated entirely on revenge. From here on in, he doesn't even seem to notice that people are being hurt all around him or he just doesn't care, he simply wants to find the man responsible for killing his wife. Of course, bringing down a criminal syndicate in the process is a big bonus.

To give you an idea of just how blind he is to those being hurt around him, Lucy is killed not long after talking to him, he strangles and nearly kills Duncan's widow, and when he tells one of the women close to the syndicate some crucial information, that leads to two more deaths. As long as he gets the results he wants, these deaths don't seem to bother him one bit.

What set this apart from other film noirs, aside from Lang's excellent direction, was the stronger level of violence. When thinking about film noir, I tend to think of films like "The Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep," or "Detour," with their low level of violence. Films like that tend to use only the really fake-looking gun shots that don't actually fire anything. "The Big Heat" shocks the whole audience by going much further than that with the use of dynamite in a car. With that sequence, Lang pulls away from the previous films of the genre, once again showing us his dark side.

The other sequence that is really memorable is one that we don't even see happen. When Debby (Gloria Grahame), the woman close to the syndicate, annoys her boyfriend, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), he throws hot coffee on her face, leaving her terribly burned. What is so amazing about this scene is that Lang uses the mere power of suggestion. We see Stone pick up the steaming hot coffee, but we don't see it splash on her. All we hear is a scream, and then we see Debby running into the next room where the camera is. Pure suggestion, but powerfully executed.

While this may not be as strong a film as "M," it is worth checking out for Fritz Lang's amazing direction and screenwriter Sydney Boehm's unique take on an old formula. With a director like Lang at the helm, you can always expect something new and unusual. Even when he decides to do a normal Hollywood genre like film noir, you know that you are going to be getting something that you haven't ever seen before. 3/4 stars.
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