Cruelty is to be expected in film noir. Maybe a big ox gets rough with a woman. Maybe a femme fatale leads a patsy to his doom by his prick. However, few of the classics are as up front about their cruelty as Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat is. Looking and acting more like a sitcom dad than a grizzled anti-hero, Glenn Ford enters the film as doting family man and upright police sergeant Dave Bannion. After getting sucked into a hellish underworld writhing with dirty cops and sleazy thugs, Ford finds his oasis of a home life shattering by murder. He then begins to resemble the criminals who destroyed his happiness more than he resembles Ward Cleaver.
Lang, renowned for phantasmagoric expressionistic masterpieces such as M and the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, holds back his wilder impulses for completely calculating purposes. What could go wrong when Bannion is merrily tucking his adorable daughter into bed under bright lighting as a jolly tune whistles away on the soundtrack? The horror that breaks this scene is all the more horrific for the preceding images and sounds of serene domesticity. Ford gives a great against-type performance as Bannion—and there are also brilliant supporting turns from Jeannette Nolan as the widow of a cop who committed suicide (maybe) and Lee Marvin at his sleaziest as a mobster’s right-hand scuzzbag— but I think we can all agree that The Big Heat belongs to Gloria Grahame. Recalling Miriam Hopkins’s similarly crushing performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Grahame’s Debby Marsh transitions from a charmingly fun-loving gal to utterly devastated being, but unlike Hopkins’s Ivy, Debby fights back like Charles Bronson. The Big Heat is extraordinary for the meaty, stereotype-smashing roles it allows its women, and Grahame is unforgettable in this film.
The Big Heat may not be one of Fritz Lang’s most visually imaginative films, but it is beautifully shot with Charles Lang’s deep contrast black and white photography. Twilight Time’s new blu-ray looks absolutely fabulous. The presentation is perfectly organic, and I don’t think I noticed a single scratch, spec, or flaw in the picture. The disc comes with two director appreciations: a pretty in-depth eleven-minute one from Michael Mann and a more basic six-minute one from Martin Scorsese, who, as I do, tends to remember the film as being more expressionistic than it actually is, probably because its splatter of grotesque images are the ones that linger longest on the brain. Get it on Twilight Time films.com here.