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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.