United States, 1953
Directed By: Fritz Lang
Written By: Sydney Boehm (screenplay), William P. McGivern (Saturday Evening Post serial), William P. McGivern (novel)
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, Willis Bouchey, Robert Burton, Adam Williams, Howard Wendell
Running Time: 89 minutes
Settle in for another exhaustive look into one of noir’s finest examples. Alexander Coleman of Coleman’s Corner in Cinema has provided a meticulous, intelligent, and entertaining essay on one of Fritz Lang’s quintessential forays into the world of noir. Alexander, do you have, like, a day job or anything?
Why did the “rogue cop” sub-genre within the greater tapestry of film noir reach such a zenith in the 1950s? Two decades earlier Hollywood had tackled the rise and fall of the gangster, that most seductively lawless of creatures. In the 1940s, it was the private-eye and then the dupe who often figured most prominently in the finest noirs. Yet the 1950s, a decade of so many incongruous contradictions—a span of time that saw the ascendancy of the American middle class like never before, greater economic prosperity and the patina of unmatched satisfaction, marked by paranoia, distrust, quietly fermenting alienation and despair—saw Hollywood filmmakers essay the cop. With each decades-long step, the message became clearer: violent criminals were a kind of exotic animal, their inescapably brutal livelihoods making magnetically attractive stories; private-eyes like Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep) navigated their way through the foggy ambiguity of everyday business, usually utilizing the police for their own ends, the relationship between private and public investigators mutually adversarial and beneficial, while everyday dupes like Walter Neff (Double Indemnity), Frank Chambers (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Michael O’Hara (The Lady from Shanghai) found themselves caught in the lustful, heated trap of the gorgeously manipulative femme fatale, a dangerous being Spade, Marlowe and Jeff Markham (Out of the Past), to name three P.I.s, all encountered in the otherwise soul-draining ennui of their occupations. The 1950s, a decade arguably defined by the relationship between symbols of authority and the public in all of its complexities, found turpitude, angst and moral compromise in the shielded figure of the police officer.
Numerous film historians and critics have considered the entire experience of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklisting of Hollywood filmmakers is what led to a number of screenwriters to look at the excesses of figures of authority. Many left-leaning screenwriters and directors believed the government’s actions were egregious, a blatant example of authority misusing its power. A policeman is a perfectly distilled representation of everything an artist can draw out of the sometimes abstract conception of personal sovereign empowerment.
Some of the cops detailed in these pictures became outright crooks with little self-doubt; others were tempted and resisted as resiliently as they believed possible; a significant portion were men beaten down by the horrors of their existence, succumbing to the demonic allure of routinely resorting to violence as a solution to their quandaries, most nakedly their own enveloping malaise. Some cops stayed straight but found the gruesome spectacle of the world they policed unforgiving. The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950),Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), The Racket (1951) (which was a remake of the 1928 silent film of the same name), The Prowler (1951), On Dangerous Ground(1952), Private Hell 36 (1954), Pushover (1954), Rogue Cop (1954), Shield for Murder (1954), The Big Combo (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958) are just some of the most famous examples of noirs that placed the spotlight on the dilemmas, temptations and lurid tales of perilous quests for justice, always most vitally inner searches. The “rogue cop” sub-genre found its apotheosis in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).
One of the most important reasons why The Big Heat is such a landmark feature, whether it be defined as strictly noir, crime drama, “rogue cop” picture or one of Lang’s richest examinations of the correlation between criminality and political institutions, like his cerebral German masterpieces such as his Dr. Mabuse series and M, is that it approaches its subject matter and protagonist with subtlety and almost deadpan precision. Glenn Ford plays Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, a strait-laced, singularly certain cop who spouts vitriol and seething hate for those who have poisoned the city he is charged with “serv[ing] and protect[ing],” so certain of his own superiority in the face of such cretinous adversaries that his glare suffices in communicating that belief. He’s a very happily married family man with a beautiful wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon) and child, and by nearly every outward standard, his uprightness and bearing is so commendably inflexible as to represent almost the opposite of nearly all other “rogue cops.” Whereas those men were torn and conflicted, captured in the never-ending cycle of arrest and reprisal, suspect-beating and confession, Ford’s more garrulous cop openly verbalizes his sedulous application of his position within society—that of uniquely empowered guardian and street-trekking warrior—with unironic earnestness. His most cutting description of his underworld nemeses is the label of “thief.” For Bannion, these repulsive monsters have stolen the promise of his city. Enabled by corrupt politicians and city figures—including Police Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell), no less—these gangsters are Bannion’s natural foes. In stark contrast to the majority of cops portrayed by Hollywood at this time, Bannion as played by Ford, under Lang’s direction, is astonishingly ascetic. Within a sub-genre defined by its self-contradictions—most pointedly the visage of the rule-bending or -breaking law enforcement officer—most visibly alive in a decade boiling over with its myriad contradictions, Bannion is ultimately the subtlest and truest contradiction to be found.
A fictional American city named Kenport, riddled with widespread corruption, is the setting. Known for his economical narratives, Lang’s seminal noir is no different. The first shot of the film is indeed the first shot of the film: the camera looms over a .38 handgun resting on a desk. A man picks it up and shoots himself in the head, falling to the desk, his gun, in hand, pressed against an envelope addressed to the district attorney and a badge. He was a cop, a sergeant, named Tom Duncan. Lang cuts to a long shot from behind the dead man, a flight of stairs comes into view. A shadow emerges against the wall. It is Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), who immediately and blithely accepts her newfound life as a widow. She grabs the envelope, extracts the papers therein and reads. A moment later she calls up the most notorious hoodlum in the city, the fearsomely powerful Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). Lagana subsequently calls up his most trusted enforcer, the tempestuously volatile Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), getting instead Stone’s woman, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Scourby is solid as the cautious but frightening criminal mastermind who has the city, several of its major politicians, its police commissioner and quite a few cops in his pocket. The up-and-coming Marvin is fiercely, scarily intense, fabulously dressed, his exterior’s coolness concealing the sweaty, violent animal no more effectively than the most transparent veil. Grahame’s performance is just right. She plays a sassy flirt who isn’t truly slutty, but the viewer is convinced she is a woman who has fallen in with the wrong kind of fellow with enough regularity that her shrugging at Stone’s brutality about two-thirds into the film while talking up the lucrativeness and luxuriousness of the lifestyle makes perfect sense coming from her.
Cinematographer Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz Lang) lights the early scenes to underscore the dramatic urgency. Yet director Lang largely “naturalizes” and modifies the expressionism, both surprising coming from him and perfectly wise, efficaciously conveying the scabrousness with an almost insidious mastery. This is a drab, ugly world, and Lang’s compositions provide copious amounts of detail and information without calling needless attention to themselves. Lang, whose films were such sterling exercises in determinism, psychologically buttressing the motivations for the characters, strives here for something both simpler and more complicated than before. With The Big Heat, Lang made a crime thriller with a protagonist so sure of himself that the audience may be caught off guard when they eventually realize just how deadly his pursuit of justice has been. Monochromatic shots of Venetian blinds capturing the vacantly oval features of Ford’s face provide crucial pieces of information in visual shorthand, chronicling Bannion’s personal, borderline psychotic quest for justice. And Ford is nothing less than ideal as Bannion, a sweltering cauldron of rage, his epithets thrown in the faces of his enemies always lacerating and pungent. Words such as “thief” and “lice” never sounded as dirty as they do when they exit his lips. Today’s R-rated profanity is no match for it.
Bannion first questions the widow, Bertha, about her husband’s fatality, during which she acts as though she has been devastated. She contends that her husband Tom was in ill health, telling Bannion a tale about Tom suffering from a pain in his left side and refusing to see anyone about it, therefore explaining his suicidal impulse. Bannion is soon sought by a barfly named Lucy Chapman. She met Tom Duncan a year ago and became his mistress. Bannion is briefly taken aback when Lucy says that she and Tom would swim together at his summer residence, the existence of which would indicate that he was on the take. Lucy contradicts Bertha, claiming that Duncan was in good health and that he would not have killed himself. Moreover, Tom told Lucy he was successful in persuading Bertha to allow him a divorce. Bannion unwisely decides to go back to Bertha, informing her of the dramatic discrepancy be tween her and Lucy’s opinions of Tom’s health. He also questions the widow about the details concerning the purchase of the summer home. “Lucy may try to blackmail you,” Bannion remarks. Little does he realize that the blackmailer is Bertha, who has taken the envelope meant for the district attorney and is leveraging Lagana with it.
There are four independent women in The Big Heat but the character closest to being a femme fatale is the male protagonist, Bannion. Through one misjudgment after another, he blindly, unwittingly ensures the deaths of all four women. Unlike many femme fatales, who acknowledge their own culpability in the demises of unfortunate characters, Bannion is too busy to dwell on it, or his role in pushing these women into the pathway of deathly destruction. The first to perish is Lucy, bluntly accused by Bannion of being a probable shakedown artist, who in actuality was the only person telling him the truth about the dead cop. By immediately going back to Bertha, telling her of the stakes involved with Lucy’s statement, he fingers her, giving Bertha the opportunity to tell the mob who to rub out so the genuine details that led to Tom’s suicide remain closed off from the private. The next morning Bannion is approached by a cop who hands him the report of a woman’s murder, which took place outside of Bannion’s jurisdiction on a county road. Bannion confirms that it is Lucy, and speaks with the medical examiner. The examiner chillingly describes the probable fate of all unfortunates, generalizing and labeling Lucy as just another barfly in the wrong place, with the wrong people at the wrong time: “Trouble automatically catches up with girls like her. Looks like a sex crime to me… I’d say pretty definitely it was psychopathic. You saw those cigarette burns on her body.” Bannion’s burning rage is being fueled. “Yeah, I saw them. Every single one of them,” he snarls through gritted teeth, furiously extinguishing his own cigarette butt. Soon Lieutenant Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) attempts to cajole Bannion, ordering him to “stop pestering the widow,” trying to soften the blow of Lucy’s death. “When barflys get killed, it’s for any one of a dozen crummy reasons, you know that.” He reminds Bannion that the matter is one for the county authorities to trouble themselves with. A dissolve from this scene brings us into a close-up of a cocktail glass, held by the bartender of the establishment called The Retreat (on this disorienting scale, the glass could be a spaceship aloft in the sky). Bannion is pursuing the case. He questions the bartender, named Tierney (Peter Whitney). Again, Bannion is given the dispiriting explanation of Lucy’s fate, which was a result of her not experiencing the stable home life “good women” like Bertha Duncan have. “They come and go like flies,” Tierney says of the “dames” who frequent his establishment. “Outside my place, some of these babes keep some pretty shady company. It figures. They know nobody cares much about what happens to ‘em… They’re floaters, not much more than a suitcase full of nothin’ between them and the gutter.”
After his wife receives a disgusting, threatening phone call from one of Lagana’s henchmen, Bannion blows his top and decides to send Lagana a personal message at the mobster’s estate. Running into a police officer stationed outside, Lang makes his political point with tremendous impact. As the film is one overwhelming warning to Americans to not allow a fate similar to that of Germany in the 1930s to befall their nation, Lang becomes less shy about making the greater connection. The cop in uniform outside asks for identification from Bannion, and after learning that the man is a sergeant, says he didn’t recognize him. Bannion asks the cop how many police officers are guarding Lagana’s home. The cop tells him that there are ten cops for a twenty-four hour defense of the estate. Bannion, mutedly nauseated in his trench coat and hat, calculates the expense to the taxpayers, which is one hundred dollars a day. “Do you like this detail?” Bannion asks. “I do what I’m told,” the cop replies. “That’s what we’re all supposed to do, isn’t it?” Lang’s message is outstandingly clear: the vulnerability of becoming the “good German” is always pervasive—corruption and tyranny fit together seamlessly. It is ironically Bannion, by disobeying his superiors, who signifies the hope of a man working outside the parameters of the law.
That hope is a recurring one, and it is what gives this feature its sole silver lining. In my reviews of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I compared Christopher Nolan’s thematic interests to Lang’s. Conversely, The Big Heat approaches the primarily downbeat story in a way that must have helped to inspire Nolan’s vision of Batman Begins, which sees the rise of a vigilante confronting a city wallowing in abject corruption and hopelessness. However, as the film may be a precursor to Nolan’s work, so too is the character of Bannion such for Nolan’s take on Batman: a man afflicted with a deeply scarred psyche, possessed by the unquenchable need for justice.
That deeply scarred psyche is most horribly tortured by the murder of a loved one. Bannion confronts Lagana in his posh house; Lagana’s daughter is throwing a party. The bitterly abrasive meeting helps to elucidate Lang’s own thoughts on the ceaseless tug-of-war between society and criminality; however, this film expands upon one of Lang’s earlier fears, that of the minimized disorder of crime-fighting being necessary to dismantle the immoral order of criminals, whether they be underworld thugs or demagogic chancellors. Bannion represents the law but in a society of any significance that finds itself marinating in the vile cesspool of pandemic disregard for the law, he also personifies a certain disorder. Lagana, however, as criminal despot, must ensure insurgent threats to his power are quashed. After listening to Lagana loquaciously brag about his “immaculate,” pristine home, Bannion angrily denounces his home as a monument to sinfulness: “You know, you couldn’t plant enough flowers around here to kill the smell.” Bannion beats one of Lagana’s bodyguards in front of him at his home, expressing unmitigated revulsion at the mere reality of Lagana. When Lagana openly threatens him, Bannion counters: “What are you going to do, make another phone call?” The answer comes just a little later, when Bannion’s wife dies from the family’s car exploding in their driveway.
The bleak solemnity is piercingly forthright on Lang’s part. Bannion, sickened by the pitiful, bloodless condolences and whitewashing by Commissioner Higgins, openly challenges him, disdainfully accusing the commissioner and the lieutenant as being on Lagana’s payroll, which results in Bannion’s suspension. Bannion hands over his badge but holds on to his gun, which, as he says, “…doesn’t belong to the department.” Higgins is dumbstruck, cautioning Bannion against using his weapon. “I won’t use the gun, “Bannion vows, “not until I catch up with the people who murdered my wife.” Bannion’s home is empty now, and after taking one last look at it from the inside, particularly the kitchen, where he and his wife immeasurably enjoyed one another’s nightly company. Detective Gus Burke (Robert Burton) attempts to make Bannion see the folly in his vengefulness but Bannion refuses to listen. “No man’s an island, Dave. You can’t set yourself up against the world and get away with it.” Bannion coldly shuts the door, visually concluding his once sunny personal life on a note of despondent finality. There is no turning back.
Meanwhile, Lagana harshly scolds his underlings for murdering Bannion’s wife. Vince has made a terrible error in using a knucklehead named Larry Gordon (Adam Williams) to dispose of Lucy’s body after Vince sadistically murdered her and for lousing up the attempt on Bannion, slaying his wife instead. Here Lang once again illustrates the tumultuous power of the people—a fascination he had always held, and one that informed the breathtaking coda to Metropolis—by looking at it through the other side of the glass. (Glass panes are literally utilized by Lang to frame characters, such as Katie’s face through a kitchen cupboard’s glass door and a phone booth’s glass pane framing Bannion when h e gives an encore performance of questioning Tierney.) Whereas Bannion mourns the apparent incorrigibility of the people, seemingly forever behaving like “scared rabbits,” as Gus describes Bannion’s outlook, Lagana senses something markedly different. Supporting his cautiousness in dealing with Bannion directly after murdering his wife, Lagana tells Vince when they are alone, “Things are changing in this country, Vince. A man who can’t see that hasn’t got eyes. Never get the people steamed up. They start doing things.”
Bannion’s quest continues ten days after his wife’s murder. He has been working his way through a list of mechanics who might have installed the explosives that murdered his wife. At the glumly desolate Victory Auto Wrecking dump, Bannion asks the tight-lipped, fat Mr. Atkins (Dan Seymour) where a certain Raymond “Slim” Farrow, a mechanic who may have installed the explosives, is. Atkins is uncooperative, revealing only that “Slim” died three days earlier due to “a bad ticker.” Bannion eyes him with merciless contempt. “You wouldn’t stick your big fat neck out for anybody, would you?” As Bannion walks down the sidewalk, ostensibly defeated, an unlikely ray of hope appears. Selma Parker (Edith Evanson), an elderly, crippled secretary-clerk at Victory Auto Wrecking has overheard Bannion’s fruitless conversation with Atkins. One of the starkest pieces of mise-en-scene is the framing of Selma behind the harsh mesh-wire fence that imprisons her. Helpless and vulnerable she nevertheless represents precisely the danger Lagana verbalized to Vince.
After the vicious Vince burns another barfly’s hand at The Retreat, resulting in Bannion briefly manhandling him and telling him to “get out while you can still walk,” Debby, feeling as though Vince has left her high and dry, and impressed by Bannion’s tenacious bravery, decides to follow Bannion. The recent widower decides to let her come along to his drab hotel room. “I like this. Early nothing!” Debby exclaims. She is thoroughly conditioned now to expect the best in perfumes, dresses, coats, jewelry and manicures. As Vince explains, she shops six days a week and on the seventh she rests. In one of the film’s most emotionally naked scenes, Bannion pours ice water over Debby’s apparent advances while opportunistically pumping her for information about Lagana. She tries to explain herself to him, why she allows Vince to sometimes treat her poorly. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor.Believe me, rich is better.” When she tires of Bannion’s questions, he asks her why she came up to his hotel room to begin with. Behaving flirtatiously, propping herself on his bed and accentuating her sexiness with directness she replies, “Well, why don’t we call it research or something?” Bannion understands that it is her way of needling Vince, and when she accidentally reminds him of his courting his wife (“Didn’t you ever tell a girl pretty things? You know, she’s got hair like the west wind, eyes like limpid pools, skin like velvet…?”) he turns into a complete block of ice. Ford’s anguished reflection as she leaves his room at his request is overpowering, a portrait of a man consumed by bottomless heartache and pained fury.
Lang’s film is brimming with doubles. Psychologically probing the failings of society as part of his greater treatment of crime, punishment, evil, good, injustice and justice, the picture documents the hypocrisies with which those forgotten and forsaken must contend. The “barfly,” Lucy, cries out to Bannion, “The only difference between me and Bertha Duncan is that I work at being a ‘B girl,’ and she has a wedding ring and a marriage certificate.” In their first scene together, Bannion brags to his wife about them being able to eat steaks for dinner on his salary, something his fellow cops are amazed by. Katie jokingly instructs, “Tell them you married an heiress.” When Debby tries to explain herself to Bannion—why she stays with Vince—she caustically asks, “You think I was born an heiress?” Late in the picture when Debby confronts Bertha, she, like Lucy, sees the relationship between the women. “We’re sisters under the mink,” she pointedly remarks as Lang holds a long take on the two in their respective mink coats. The image of a gang of cutthroat gangsters and crooked-as-snakes politicians playing cards, already richly packed with multiple meanings, is given only more dimension when Lang lets the viewer be privy to a card game played by a group of war veterans summoned by Bannion’s brother-in-law to protect his child. Debby herself is in her own way a double, forever halfway disfigured after Vince jealously throws a pot of boiling coffee into her face, leaving her countenance divulging the positive and negative aspects of her character.
Bannion is one of the most fascinating characterizations in all of film noir. He is in many ways the Langian protagonist, and all that entails. Not only does he and the film that tells his story represent the apotheosis of the “rogue-cop,” but also lights the lamp for future incarnations of the vigilante/rogue/crooked cop like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) or so many other takes such as L.A. Confidential and television’s The Shield. He’s finally a ruthless figure, his desire to take the city back from the “thieves” almost pathological in its constitution, and he is made wholly possessed by the need of retribution after his wife is murdered. His obsessions and fixations conspire to make him into a nasty, brutish beast. Yet he’s also lethally manipulative in a kind of storm-like manner that seems to be derived from severe tunnel vision. He ignores his own doubts about Bertha’s credibility and morality at the expense of Lucy’s life. He fails to think about the consequences of crashing Lagana’s daughter’s party, roughing up a bodyguard and directly taunting Lagana, practically daring the crime boss to act against him, after which his beloved wife is murdered. Debby comes to understand just how little this cop cares about her personally when he blindly asks her about Larry Gordon. Entrapping that man, he utilizes Selma to identify Larry, placing her in the way of possible harm, then immediately experiences the pleasurable cathartic satisfaction of beating Larry and nearly strangling him to death. Electing not to actually murder him personally, Bannion deliriously glows as he tells the “thief” that he’s going to “spread the word” that he talked. As if that were not enough, Bannion finally places the climactic decision of murdering Bertha—so that all of the information in the envelope is released—in the hands of Debby. Partly wishing that he had murdered Bertha himself, he’s told by Debby that if he did that there would be little difference between he and Vince. Bannion must preserve his moral superiority for his life to have any meaning left. She, however, is a lost woman, and she gladly takes up the virtual dare on Bannion’s part, leaving her a gun after planting the idea in her head. She finally catches up with Vince again and scalds his face with hot coffee. She is shot, fatally, by Vince. Bannion attacks Vince, and corners him. Despite the gangster’s pleas for him to shoot, Bannion decides he cannot commit murder himself. His badge must remain untarnished.
The final piece of psychological essaying is the most important in the film, and is why the ending must be discussed. Bannion looks down upon the dying Debby. Earlier he gave a “police description” of his dead wife when she asked; now, however, he opens up and tells Debby about his Katie. In the sharpest “doubling” of the film, Bannion suggests that Debby and Katie would have “gotten along just fine.” As Bannion describes his wife in greater detail than ever before, Debby smiles, saying that she likes her. His memories have found fluent voice, and for the first time since just before his wife’s death, his face brightens. It’s a twisted scene, however, one that feels like a cousin to Vertigo. The man has both had the life of his woman relived in much lower, baser form and the death, likewise relived. Moreover, it is a scene that can be accurately read in drastically different ways. Some may interpret it as Bannion’s most human and finest moment, finally able to let out his true feelings and memories. He grants Debby her dying wish, to hear about his wife, to wish for a life like that of his wife, perhaps in heaven. Debby takes on the avenging angel of the barfly. She has disproved the distasteful disregard voiced by the medical examiner, lieutenant and bartender. Lang’s picture speaks to similar societal concerns as his oldest work, and with Debby he was given the opportunity to allow the marginalized and meek, plebeian and powerless, corrupted and culpable, to have their day, their moment of redemption and honor.
The Big Heat is in some ways like the other “rogue cop” noirs, fundamentally political but Lang’s concerns always hit harder and more deeply, all at once. He brought a distinctly European existentialism with him to America, and in many ways this film is perhaps more about the European experience than the American experience. However, art, especially art the caliber of Lang’s, speaks to civilization entire. It is with startling frequency that the most maturely measured and profoundly uncomfortable art makes the greatest statements about life. Whether its effect is that of a healing analeptic or corrosive toxin is, like the conclusion to Bannion’s own story, to be decided. Lang doubtless viewed all of the complexities and dualisms with sober reasoning and increasing pessimism as he aged. As film noir writer and historian Eddie Muller has written, when asked about this picture’s blossoming popularity, Lang offered a rare statement of optimism: “…[I]n every human being is the desire that good shall conquer evil. Could it be that people see in [Bannion] a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity and the H-bomb?” Lang closes this picture with Bannion, triumphantly reinstated in the police department, asking that the coffee be kept hot for him as he goes out on another case. On the wall he speedily walks past are the words “Give Blood Now,” a description of the sacrifice that the people—and in this film the women most particularly—must pay in full, for the sake of “good” vanquishing “evil.” And, in The Big Heat, for the sake of “good” remaining “good.”