The Big Heat (1953)

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*. I like crime dramas as much as the next guy, but I feel that they get more than their fair share of love and affection from film historians, cinephiles, and critics. Sometimes it seems as though every little noir — and noir was a B-genre in the first place — has to be touted as a minor masterpiece.
*. The Big Heat is a good example. I don’t think it’s anything special. Fritz Lang directs, but doesn’t seem particularly interested in what’s going on. I’ve read a lot of praise for his sense of style, but I don’t see much of it here. Certainly no more than in any comparable noir product.
*. Glenn Ford is, as in Gilda, upstaged by his co-stars. This is a point worth expanding on. David Thomson makes a big deal about Ford as righteous avenger in this film, but really he isn’t. He just doesn’t have that manic gleam in his froggy face, and we never see him get that upset over his wife’s murder. Instead there’s a cut from her being pulled from the burning car to a meeting in the commissioner’s office after the funeral. Ford tries to look stern, and says a lot of tough things about the cops being rabbits as he goes out on his “hate binge,” but he never crosses over a line of decorum. He doesn’t try and beat information out of Atkins (the auto wrecker), or out of the widow Duncan. He just has to impotently walk away.

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*. Instead, the real story of vengeance is that of Goria Grahame coming after Lee Marvin for throwing a pot of scalding coffee in her face. That is the film’s defining moment (Scorsese was impressed, and would re-use it in Cape Fear). It is Grahame’s role as lady avenger, complete in face mask and fur, that is the movie’s strongest narrative line. She’s the one who finds out where the widow Duncan is staying and hunts her down. She’s the one to exact retributive justice on Vince Stone.

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*. The rights of the disabled have come a long way. The accountant at the Victory auto yard, who walks with a cane, doesn’t want to say anything bad about Atkins because “not many people would hire someone like me.” To be an accountant? To sit at a desk and do the books? All she has is a gimpy leg.
*. The script is nothing special. The plot is straightforward. There are only a couple of zinger lines, one of them served up by Lang when we see the spread of Atkins’ fat ass as Bannion asks where “Slim” is (the other is Grahame’s line when she enters Bannion’s hotel room and calls it “early nothing”). There is no sexual tension with Grahame because Vince just likes to slap women around and Bannion is in mourning and she’s just a B-girl anyway. Finally, the crime boss Lagana is a non-entity with an unexplained mother fixation, someone to be dismissed almost as an afterthought with a headline.
*. So it’s not an essential movie, even within its genre. It is worth tracking down though, if just for Grahame’s turn as a Fury in fur. In the end, Bannion is only here to clean up her mess.

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