#368) The Big Heat (1953)

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#368) The Big Heat (1953)

OR “Good to the Last Drop”

Directed by Fritz Lang

Written by Sydney Boehm. Based on the serial and novel by William P. McGivern.

The Plot: Officer Tom Duncan has taken his own life, and Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates. Duncan’s widow (Jeanette Nolan) says Tom was in poor health, but a woman claiming to be Duncan’s mistress (Dorothy Green) refutes this, and winds up murdered the next day. Bannion continues to inquire, despite objections from his superiors and death threats directed at his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando). With assistance from Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), the girlfriend of gangster Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), Bannion uncovers a crime syndicate whose influence reaches far beyond the town’s underworld.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[o]ne of the great post-war noir films” and “both stylized and brutally realistic”.

But Does It Really?: Sometimes I designate films on this list as “minor classics”, but “The Big Heat” made me question if there was a label below that. There’s nothing wrong with “The Big Heat”; it has all the hallmarks of film noir without resorting to cliché, and its female characters are allowed to be far more dimensional than others of the era, but overall the film was just “meh” for me. “Big Heat” is a well-made pulp drama that has aged quite well, but its standing as a classic has definitely diminished over time. “The Big Heat” is great noir viewing, but I question its standing as a significant American film.

Shout Outs: When Bannion encounters Stone at The Retreat, the background music is “Put the Blame on Mame” from “Gilda”, also starring Glenn Ford.

Everybody Gets One: While not as successful as younger brother Marlon, Jocelyn Brando had a stage and screen career that spanned over 35 years. “The Big Heat” was one of Jocelyn’s first films. Other highlights include the original stage production of “Mister Roberts” with Henry Fonda, and the 1981 cult classic “Mommie Dearest”. Ever the older sibling, Jocelyn was incredibly supportive of Marlon and always quick to publicly defend his behavior.

Wow, That’s Dated: Your standard ‘50s crime elements, like police blotter on an automatic typewriter, and pre-Miranda suspect beatings. And today on “We Are the Worst at Inflation”: a 35-cent drink in 1953 would be $3.35 today, and that’s only at the happiest of happy hours, let me tell you.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations for “The Big Heat”, but it did win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for its screenplay. At least someone was paying attention.

Other notes

  • Before becoming a novel (and a major motion picture), “The Big Heat” was a serial from Philadelphia Bulletin reporter William P. McGivern. The story was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post from December 1952 to February 1953. The novel was published shortly thereafter, with the film version hitting theaters that October.
  • Like many novels turned movies, certain liberties were taken with “The Big Heat”. Bannion and Debby’s implied relationship was toned down, as was, believe it or not, most of the violence. The film’s locale was also changed from Philadelphia to the fictitious Kenport, because God forbid a real city is implied to have crime of any kind.
  • I’ve never seen Lee Marvin looking so young. Lee was 29 when he filmed “Big Heat”, and this was one of seven films he made in 1953 alone!
  • The Widow Duncan is played by veteran film actor Jeanette Nolan. Any woman who can play a corrupt widow and everyone’s ailing sweet-natured grandmother has automatically earned my respect.
  • One major element separates “Big Heat” from other film noir: because it’s a later entry in the genre, “Big Heat” can reflect on the suburban boom of the early ’50s. Bannion still treks the darkly lit alleys of a criminal underworld, but this is in counterpoint to his picket-fence homelife.
  • Like “Fury”, Fritz Lang is really struggling to bring his German expressionism sensibilities to an American studio film. He and Old Hollywood cinematographer Charles Lang (no relation) get no opportunities to do any inventive camerawork, other than the occasional 90-degree dolly tracks.
  • Today on Code-Era Profanity: “In a pig’s eye”, and the uninspired “You can fill in the four-letter words better than I can.”
  • [Spoiler] A quick film lesson I call the Gwyneth Paltrow Rule: the more harmonious a movie cop’s home life is, the more gruesome the murder of his wife will be. “The Big Heat” features an extreme example. It’s tame by today’s standards, but still unsettling.
  • Maybe it’s the inherent tropes associated with a gangster’s moll, but a lot of Gloria Grahame’s scenes with Lee Marvin play out like “Born Yesterday: The Drama”.
  • What am I missing about Glenn Ford? I’ve seen three of his movies and I’m just not getting the appeal. He’s giving me the same restrained anger in every performance. I don’t recall Pa Kent being this pissed all the time.
  • This is one of several movies on the list that features Carolyn Jones (aka Morticia Addams) with her natural blonde hair, therefore making her unrecognizable to a modern audience.
  • Why does Gloria Grahame keep getting herself mixed up with tough guys haunted by their dark past? Glenn Ford, Humphrey Bogart, Will Parker…
  • “The Big Heat” will see the grapefruit-smashing scene of “The Public Enemy”, and raise it one coffee-throwing scene. I hesitate to call the moment iconic, but Gloria Grahame getting a face of Folgers is the scene that gets the most mentions when “The Big Heat” is referenced.
  • Speaking of, shoutout to makeup artist Clay Campbell and his uncredited team. Debby’s burn marks look amazing.
  • Wow, the bodies really start piling up in the last 10 minutes. Did this movie need to fill a quota?
  • In a sweet bit of cinematic payoff, Bannion finally monologues about his dead wife at the end. It’s the ‘50s equivalent to the “She Used to Fart in Her Sleep” monologue from “Good Will Hunting”.

Legacy

  • Fritz Lang made a handful of noir movies in the ‘50s with such titles as “While the City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”, before returning to his native Germany. Maybe some day when I’ve finally completed this list we can look at some of Fritz Lang’s more iconic, NFR-ineligible work.

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