The Big Heat (1953) Fritz Lang

By 1953, Fritz Lang’s career was a rocky road forced to make small studio or independent films one after another. He also spent the last few years clearing himself of accusations, made by the House of Un-American Activities, he was a communist. By the time he signed with second tier Columbia studio the commie accusations had been cleared and Lang was heading toward the final phase of his career in America before heading back to the homeland, Germany.

With Glenn Ford, a poor man’s James Stewart, in the lead, Lang was still floating in less than grade A film waters. At this point in his career Ford was mostly making programmers or second features, films like  “Plunder in the Sun,” “Time Bomb,” “The Redhead and the Cowboy,” “Framed” and “The Undercover Man” with the occasional more expensive production  added in (“Gilda”). Quality varied, some were good, some not, most as mentioned were not “big” pictures. Columbia did not consider, “The Big Heat,” a major motion picture.

“The Big Heat” is based on a serialized, in the Saturday Evening Post, novel by William P. McGivern, a novelist (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder), screenwriter (The Wrecking Crew, Brannigan) and TV writer (Kojack, Adam-12, Banyon) with a screenplay by Sidney Bohem (Side Street, Union Station, Violent Saturday).

New York Times Opening Day Ad

Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is an honest cop, a ten year veteran of Mensport’s corrupt police department whose commissioner and other higher ups in the department are in bed with underworld kingpin Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). When corrupt cop Tom Duncan is found dead of an apparent suicide, Bannion, who is investigating the case, is warned, in a threatening phone call to his home, to lay off the investigation or else. After talking to Lucy Chapman, Duncan’s mistress, who is also soon found dead, Bannion burst into Lagana’s sizeable estate flatly accusing the hood of his involvement in the brutally torturous dead of Chapman and the phone threat to his own home.

Lagana’s responds by having his men attempt to kill Bannion rigging a bomb to his car so they next time he starts it up…boom! Only instead of Bannion getting killed, it’s his loving wife (Jocelyn Brando), who unfortunately decides to run an errant, who dies in the blast. The Police Commissioner’s meager response to the incident infuriates an already embittered Bannion who tosses his badge onto the Commissioner’s desk and walks out. Technically a civilian, Bannion begins a personal crusade to find his wife’s killer and bring down Lagana’s stranglehold on the city.

11 x 14 1959 Re-release Lobby Card

Without the badge to hold him back, Bannion’s attitude and methods make it hard to distinguish between him and the bad guys, though Vince Stone, Lee Marvin in a deliriously nasty role, still has our anti-hero beat. Saying Stone has issues is putting it mild. He’s a deadly cold killer with a particular hate toward women. This is a guy who gets a sadistic pleasure from working them over.  Stone’s narcissistic girlfriend, the sassy Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) puts up with his crap strictly for the money. She tells Bannion late in the film, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, believe me, rich is better.”  This philosophy will cost Gloria dearly when, after admiring the way Bannion humiliates Stone in a bar confrontation, is caught by one of Vince’s men running off with him. Later that night Stone catches her lying about where she has been and he, in what is probably one of film noirs most famous scenes, tosses scalding hot coffee in her face.

Seeking refuge with Bannion, Debby, her face disfigured, half covered in bandages helps the ex-detective take down Lagana and the corrupt cops but is mostly interested in seeking a final confrontation with Stone who she waylays back at his place returning that pot of boiling coffee in his face! This is followed by a shootout between Bannion and Stone with sadly, Debby getting a deadly bullet during the battle.

Original 11 x 14 Lobby Card

Almost sixty years later, “The Big Heat” still packs a strong story and a solid punch to the gut. Glenn Ford’s obsessive cop was on a crusade, and innocent and not so innocent people, mostly women, would suffer. Four women would die, including Bannion’s wife, due to his fervent actions. Revenge was a common theme in director Fritz Lang’s work (Fury, The Return of Frank James) and is the main motive for everything Bannion does here.

“The Big Heat” is certainly one of the most vicious films of its period. Beside the two coffee scalding scenes, Lang gives us a scene where a bar girl, a young, and still unknown blonde named Carolyn Jones, has a lit cigarette put out in her hand by the sadistic Stone, a scene that initiates the humiliating bar confrontation between Bannion and Vince. Also, we learn that Lucy Chapman’s death was not an easy one; she was tortured and dumped from a speeding car for talking to Bannion.

Lang gives us a nice touch with the character of the underworld boss Mike Lagana who does not come across as a typical underworld goon but as nice congenial family man, at least at first. Early in the film Bannion forces his way into Lagana’s huge estate during a party for his debutante daughter. The gangster starts off gracious and reserved only exposing his violent tendencies after Bannion attempts to  force  Lagana to answer questions about his wife’s and Lucy Chapman’s deaths. Lagana resents Bannion bringing business into his home telling him “this is my home, I don’t like dirt checked into it,” especially during his daughter’s party. He calls for one of his goons to throw Bannion out of his house. Bannion quickly floors the punk and leaves on his own.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the domestic scenes between Bannion and his wife and kid. They are very much of the 1950′s white picket fence, “Father Knows Best” variety where Mom is sweet, dressed pretty all the time and the young kid is just a bunch of bland niceness. Glenn Ford, who comes across as Mr. Nice Guy, fits right in with this diabetic level of family sweetness. Yet, these scenes of domestic bliss do accentuate Ford’s transformation from the nice family man/honest cop into the revenge seeking ex-cop who gave up the home he lived in with his family. Living now in a nondescript hotel room, he does not seem to notice, or care, if his gorilla in a china shop actions have caused a series of reactions resulting in the death of so many people.

Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin in final shootout

With his portrayal of Vince Stone, the violently sadistic hood who extinguishes a cigarette in a dame’s hand one moment then tosses a boiling hot pot of coffee at another the next, Lee Marvin entered the pantheon of cinematic bad guys. He is unforgettable in a role that brought him his first taste of screen recognition.  Gloria Grahame is always a devilish treat. Here she is Vince’s sassy outspoken main squeeze who likes the good life and times easy money can bring. Studio heads originally wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part but 20th Century Fox, who Monroe was under contract too, demanded more money than Columbia head Harry Cohn was willing to pay. Instead, they went with their in house girl Grahame. While I think Monroe would have been fine in the role, Grahame’s range was certainly broader and she reflects this well here as the outspoken tart with a soft spot. She gives us a character, in some ways, a typical noir dame, yet with a twist, she has a sensitive vulnerability to her that gets exposed and is very touching. It is also the cause of her demise.

Publicity Still for "The Big Heat"

Lang, Ford and Grahame would reunite the following year in “Human Desire,” a lesser film though still good. The film is worth seeing if for no other reason than Gloria Grahame who is fantastic in it, as a sexy yet vulnerable, abused piece of damaged goods. “Human Desire” is a remake of the much superior and darker French original, “La Bête Humaine,” directed by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon.

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20 comments on “The Big Heat (1953) Fritz Lang

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    “The Big Heat” is certainly one of the most vicious films of its period. Beside the two coffee scalding scenes, Lang gives us a scene where a bar girl, a young, and still unknown blonde named Carolyn Jones, has a lit cigarette put out in her hand by the sadistic Stone, a scene that initiates the humiliating bar confrontation between Bannion and Vince.”

    Yes indeed John. Superbly asserted. THE BIG HEAT is often mentioned as Lang’s greatest American film, and for me it’s at least #2 behind YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE. As you note, Ford, Graham and Marvin all turn in electrifying performances and the film is fierce and engrossing. It’s certainly one of noir’s finest entries, and a film that continues to fascinate on re-viewings. I do agree that the domestic scenes are 50′s cheese, but they almost seem like a welcome counterpoint to the searing segments that make the film so unforgettable. Yes, HUMAN DESIRE, though lesser is still a most interesting effort for a host of reasons.

    Great review here!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam! This is definitely one of Lang’s greatest during his American period, as is YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, another masterwork. I always like HUMAN DESIRE especially for Gloria Grahame’s performance which I can say is one of her best. Thanks again for stiopping with your always welcome thoughts.

  2. John says:

    Nice write-up, John! The Big Heat is still one of the best “cop” movies ever made.

    While I agree that Glenn Ford was hardly a big star at the time, in very short order, by 1958, he was the number one box office draw in the world. Having under his belt such as 3:10 To Yuma, Blackboard Jungle,
    Jubal, etc.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks John! True Ford was on the verge of becoming a bigger star within the next few years and the three films you mention are all good quality films. One of my favorite films of his came in in 1962, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR.

  3. KimWilson says:

    Lee Marvin always played sadistic well. Both Grahame and Ford give fine performances, too. I think this is one of the standout noirs in cinema.

    • John Greco says:

      Kim,

      It’s one of the best noirs and nobody played evil like Lee Marvin. I am thinking BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK right now,.

  4. Jon says:

    Great review here John of a film I love!!!!! One of my 10 favorite film noirs of all time!!! This film yes is surprising vicious for it’s time and I think that’s what still makes it so striking today. Love the cast and can’t go wrong at all with Ford, Marvin, and Grahame. Wonderful stuff.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Jon,

      i think over the years I have watched this film about six or seven times. It never get old or loses its power. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. John,
    It really is sad to think about the careers that suffered or worse, were ruined due to being mislabeled as a “communist”!

    You pointed out some of the violent scenes from The Big Heat and I have to agree that it was one that made me cringe. I’ve seen so many ‘gangster’ films, murder mysteries and thrillers from this era that were timid and faintly suggested violence without showing it. For example Scarface which was much earlier showing shadows and we hear guns go off letting us know things were getting ugly. Having gotten used to such non violence a few scenes in TBH shocked me.

    I’m a big fan of Glenn Ford as well as Fritz Lang so this review was even more enjoyable to read. I hope you don’t mind if I put a link to your review on my sidebar so my readers don’t miss it.
    Have a great weekend!
    Page

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Page,

      Thanks for stopping by. I have to think the hot coffee scenes must have made audiences of the day cringe. I do think that after WWII audiences may have begun to accept more violence on the screen. The war itself had to force filmmakers to bring a bit more of reality to the screen.

      I always run hot and cold with Glenn Ford. What I like about him here is he comes across as a nice guy, so when he turns into the revenge seeking ex-cop, its even more shocking.

      As for the posting, I am honored and thank you very much!

  6. John,
    The last film I saw with Glenn Ford reminded me of your ‘hot and cold’ comment. It was A Stolen Life (46) with Bette Davis. I couldn’t get past Bette’s awful bangs and playing twins. But what stood our the most was the total lack of chemistry/passion between Bette and Glenn’s characters. I wasn’t buying any of it and it was hard to discern between Bette’s sweet character and her mean, vindictive sister! ha ha

    Glenn was better suited for hero/cowboy roles!
    Page

  7. The Lady Eve says:

    What would “The Big Heat” be without Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame? No one can (literally) tear up the scenery and his on-screen enemies better than Marvin when he’s on a roll. And Miss Grahame should have patented her particular brand of “bad girl with a good heart.” Great stuff.

    I tend to run hot and cold on Glenn Ford, too. I like him in this one pretty well, though I can’t help thinking of other actors I might’ve preferred in the role. But as you say, this was not expected to be a “major motion picture,” so William Holden, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, etc., probably weren’t options.

    • John Greco says:

      Eve,

      I’m totally on board with you with Marvin and Grahame, they were masters at what they did. Ford is a little too bland for me sometimes though it does work fo his characters depending on the role. The actors you mention (Douglas and co.) would have done well, I always thought Richard Widmark would have been exceptional in this role.

  8. Judy says:

    John, I haven’t seen this as yet or at least I don’t think I have – some bits do sound familiar so maybe I saw it years ago. Anyway, I’ve been watching some Fritz Lang lately and definitely want to see this soon – will return to reread your great review when I manage to do so!

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Judy,

      Lang is one of the greats and this is one of his best whether you are talking about his American or German periods.Let me know what you think if you get the chance to watch it.

      • Judy says:

        I’ve seen this now and really liked it – must agree with you that both Grahame and Marvin are fantastic in their roles. Glenn Ford gives a quieter performance but I think he is effective too and it is quite a transformation from the “everyman” figure with those sweet home scenes to the angry ex-cop chasing revenge! On the coffee, I managed to pour a whole pot of boiling coffee over my foot a few years ago and was badly burned at the time but it didn’t scar at all, so looks as if I was very lucky!

        Although I agree that the home scenes are a bit too sugary, especially the scenes with the little girl, I did like Jocelyn Brando as Ford’s wife. I rather liked the way they talked to each other all the time about everything happening at work, and the little scene they have together where he is feeling depressed and she wants to know why. I didn’t realise the actress was Marlon’s big sister until I looked her up on the imdb – apparently Karl Malden thought she could have had a great career too but she had a drink problem, like the Brandos’ parents, so she never really fulfilled her potential. Anyway, great review, John, and I am more impressed by Lang than ever.

  9. I really enjoyed your review of “The Big Heat,” which is one of my favorite films noirs. I thought Glenn Ford was perfect for his role, though, and I actually love the scenes with Glenn Ford and his wife — I thought the film did a great job of spotlighting their relationship, which makes the viewer truly understand his unconsolable pain when she meets her untimely end. If you get a chance, I’d love for you to take a look at some of the reasons why I love this film — I wrote about them here: http://bit.ly/oq1JiQ

    • John Greco says:

      Karen,

      I will definitely take a look at what you wrote. THE BIG HEAT was one of the first noirs I ever really got into more years ago than I want to think about (LOL). It still holds a special place in my cinematic heart. Thanks!

  10. John Greco says:

    Glad you liked this Judy!

    The home sweet home scene are bit on the sugar side but Jocelyn Brando does well and they are a nice contrast to what is forthcoming. Your own experience with the coffee spilling must have made those scenes only that much more vivid. Glad to hear there was no lasting damage. Thanks for connecting back with your thoughts!

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