#320 The Big Heat

(1953, Fritz Lang)

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better”

Today I’m reviewing a film noir! Awwwww yeaaaaaah!

The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion, a police detective investigating the death of fellow officer Tom Duncan. After a woman named Lucy (Dorothy Greene) tips him off that the case may not be as open-and-shut as it first seems, she soon turns up dead. Bannion begins investigating further, and finds himself receiving threatening phone calls, and a confrontation with a local mob boss results in the death of his wife. Now Bannion is on the trail of the truth, both for justice and for revenge!

The Big Heat features all the typical trappings of a moody detective noir flick. Smoky jazz bars, an honest cop pushed to the edge, police corruption, mob bribery. It pretty much ticks all the boxes for what you’d expect. But this is no predictable slog. This is an action-packed and tense thriller which ticks all the boxes because it knows exactly what makes this kind of movie work.

The dialogue, for instance, is consistently sharp. Every line has a purpose and fleshes out characters into their admittedly expected roles. Bannion is a particularly likeable chap, with a sense of decency that makes the audience root for him constantly. He stays on the side of good even while motivated by grief and anger, and avoids becoming a cynical and unfeeling noir detective. Bannion is a man that we sympathise with and want to see succeed, because he’s what we would like the cops to be. And as the movie progresses, his actions become outright badass.

The pacing of the movie helps too. The movie starts out slow and methodical, keeping things fairly by the book and mundane, but setting the scene perfectly. We learn the world and the politics in it gradually, giving us time to absorb what’s happening before things go pear-shaped. And when things do go pear-shaped? They don’t stop. The second half of the movie is a non-stop ride of action and conspiracy and murder and all that good stuff.

If I had any problem with the movie, it was in how disposable every single female character seemed to be for the most part. In the setup, we witness Bannion’s family life, which included his savvy and smart wife, who was an excellent character who traded wits with Bannion on numerous occasions and generally served as a great character for him to bounce off. However, after her death, Bannion seems to brush off any grief he should be feeling for her and goes into stoic detective mode instantly. She is barely mentioned again, and when she is, it’s simply an offhanded mention of her being the catalyst for Bannion’s Revenge Quest.

Obviously, this is a symptom of the genre and the times, but it still bugged me immensely. I grew to love Kate as a character in her own right during her limited on-screen time, and to see her so casually discarded saddened me. Perhaps I’d been fine with it if Bannion’s stone-cold determination had been presented as a flawed form of grief, but it wasn’t. It was simply What He Must Do. The fact that other female characters are seemingly just as quickly discarded didn’t help. Even Gloria Grahame’s role as fleeing mob girlfriend Debby struggled to advance beyond helpless damsel and She Who Reminds Bannion Of His Wife. Again, I know it’s a symptom of the times, but it made me sad.

That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Big Heat. It wasn’t particularly standout as far as the genre goes, and it did little differently to other contemporary films, but it was a solid movie all the same. A rip-roaring detective thriller that reminds me of all the reasons I love crime fiction in the first place and a great way to spend two hours.

Starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame & Lee Marvin
Written by William P. McGivern (serial) and Sydney Boehm
Produced by Robert Arthur
Music by Henry Vars
Cinematography by Charles Lang
Edited by Charles Nelson

Favourite Scene: The big climactic gunfight towards the end.
Scene That Bugged Me: Any time Bannion interacted with his child. That kid was the only lifeless thing in the movie.

Watch it if: You like gritty noir
Avoid it if: You’re expecting to do something unusual with the genre

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Posted on October 30, 2014, in 1950s, Action, Crime, Film Noir, Thriller and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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