Movies We Like
The Big Heat
Film noir is a style, genre, atmosphere, whatever, often synonymous with a dizzying amount of plot twists, shadowy visuals, and double and triple crosses interwoven into spider web of a plot. But in some of the most memorable examples of film noir certain filmmakers took a more, well, direct approach. The Big Heat is a lean, stripped down revenge story without the murky lighting and wafting smoke of rotten glamour that permeates many a classic film noir. The visual style is flat, the plot is relatively straightforward, but make no mistake, it’s a film that pulsates with paranoid intensity. Lang would return over and over to the trio of themes best spelled out in the title song of his weird western, Rancho Notorious: “murder, hatred and revenge.” He liked to chronicle the way that an obsessive need for revenge can turn men into that which they despise.
Before Dirty Harry there was The Big Heat’s Sgt. Bannion, an honest cop in a nameless city in the stranglehold of corruption at every level. Bannion doesn’t mince words and takes relish in stepping on the toes of every person he’s not supposed to mess with. A police captain dies under mysterious circumstances. His mistress meets Bannion for a drink and tells him she thinks he was murdered. This sparks Bannion’s investigation into a conspiracy that ensnares almost everyone in power surrounding him. When the mob retaliates in the most horrifically personal way imaginable Bannion’s crusade takes on a deranged quality. He’ll stop at nothing until he takes down Italian dandy crime boss Mike Lagana any way he can. When a ditzy girlfriend of one of Lagana’s thugs decides to help Bannion she becomes just one in a line of many victims whose personal sacrifice for Bannion’s crusade means almost nothing to him.
Glenn Ford does an impressive job with his crusading cop character. We can marvel at his willingness to speak truth to power, but there is a darkness to the character that is never reconciled by the end of the film. His passion to see justice carried out isn’t entirely admirable because decent people become expendable to his cause and his good qualities come to seem indistinguishable from his bad ones. He’s more antihero than hero. Gloria Grahame steals every scene she’s in as the bad girl who tries to do the right thing, only to get half her face scalded for her efforts. Lee Marvin is the psychopath she ultimately gets revenge on.
**Be sure to watch the special Michael Mann introduction to the film on the new Columbia Film Noir box set. He has fascinating things to say about The Big Heat.