Noirvember 2016: The Big Heat

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For the month of November Noirvember, I’ve decided to catch up with some classic pieces of film noir. The American 1940s-50s movement devoted to cynical fast talking anti-heroes, predatory femme fatales, smoky back rooms, “one last scores,” and dark shadowy pasts. From The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, film noir has been an essential part of film history. First up this month is Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat.

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Over two years ago, I watched and reviewed another noir starring Glenn Ford, Gilda, and I remembered his performance really getting on my nerves. I was told in the comments to check out The Big Heat, among other films, and give Mr. Ford the benefit of the doubt. Enough time has gone by to allow me to do that, and thankfully so, because other than great performances from the entire cast, The Big Heat offers up an interesting reversal of film noir tropes.

The Big Heat begins with the suicide of a powerful police officer, and our hero, Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called into investigate. Though his wife (Jeanette Nolan), assumes her husband killed himself because of his ill-health, Bannion keeps investigating. The dead man’s mistress comes forward and says he was in perfect health and had no reason to kill himself, then she turns up dead. Bannion is told the mistress’s murder case is out of his jurisdiction and to just work the original case and solve it quickly. He then connects these deaths to the local mob boss, Legana (Alexander Scrouby) who of course denies anything. Bannion keeps getting pressure on all sides to close the case, including death threats from Legana’s enforcer, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Seeing corruption and death all around him, he resolves to take down both the mob and the police officers that work with it.

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At first glance, I really struggled to see how this fit into film noir conventions at all. It got me thinking about what separates noir from regular old black and white crime films, because at first The Big Heat seemed to be the latter. It especially confused me when I learned it was released in ’53, when noir seemed to be pushing itself to the limits in terms of dramatic visual style. The Big Heat doesn’t shove its noirness in your face, everything seems fairly low contrast and there aren’t an overwhelming amount of night scenes. Characters could be smoking more, there could be more fog and rain and shadows and dutch angles… you see my point. I haven’t seen a ton of Lang’s films, but in terms of visual hallmarks of noir his 1944 film Ministry of Fear strikes me as having a lot more. So I was a bit put off by this film initially.

That’s not to say I wasn’t involved, just confused. Because besides lacking a definite noir style, the hero seems out of place as well. Glenn Ford’s Bannion doesn’t reveal his inner darkness until very far into the film, at the start he seems an uncomplicated family man and a cop just trying to do his job. There’s a small moment, while describing the case to his wife Kate (Jocelyn Brando), when he becomes frustrated and knocks over his young daughter’s blocks. His daughter then starts crying and runs to her mother, and as the movie continues we see that this is the hero’s effect on women in microcosm. He’ll do something or say something to women in his presence, and eventually it will cause them pain. The insidious part of the film is that Bannion seems totally unaware of it, even by the end of the movie.

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I wonder if this ties back into the film’s lack of film noir style. There’s no voice-over narration common to a lot of noirs either, which seems to me to go along with the hero’s lack of self-awareness. He really believes throughout the whole film that he’s doing the right thing. It’s almost as if the film itself doesn’t think it’s a noir, just as Bannion believes he is a hero and not an anti-hero. Which makes Lang and company pretty darn clever.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Gloria Grahame, which is a shame because as usual she basically steals the movie. I don’t know if it’s her best performance because she has more than a few really good ones, but regardless she’s probably the best part of the movie once again. She plays a girl mixed up with the mob who eventually befriends Bannion, helps him out, and comes to no good. She ends up being very vibrant and sympathetic in the role.

The Big Heat confused me a bit at first, but I ended up really enjoying it. It seems to be a noir that is almost unaware that it is one, so I think the supression of traditional noir style works pretty well. It’s as if, like its hero, it’s noir through and through but pretends to be wholesome and mainstream. Either way, it remains entertaining and watchable with characters that never cease to be compelling.

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“That won’t change my story. Cops are paid to take risks. I’m not. You see, I’ve got a wife and kids, too.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review
The New York Times review

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