The Big Heat is a 1953 film noir directed by Fritz Lang, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Jocelyn Brando, and featuring Lee Marvin. It centers on a cop who takes on the crime syndicate that controls his city. The film was written by former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, based on a serial by William P. McGivern, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and was published as a novel in 1953. The film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011.
Homicide detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) of the Kenport Police Department investigates the suicide of a rogue fellow officer, Tom Duncan, whose wife, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), says her husband had lately been in ill health. Officer Duncan leaves behind an envelope addressed to the district attorney, which Mrs. Duncan places in her safe-deposit box at the bank.
Bannion is contacted by the late cop's mistress, Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), who claims Tom Duncan had not been in ill health. Bannion revisits Duncan's widow and asks for particulars about the couple's luxurious home, but she resents the implication. The next day, Bannion is rebuffed by Lieutenant Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey), who is under pressure from "upstairs" to close the case. Lucy Chapman is found dead after being tortured, strangled, and covered with cigarette burns. Bannion investigates, although the Chapman case is in the sheriff's jurisdiction and not in his department's. After receiving threatening calls at his home, Bannion confronts Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), the local mob boss who runs the city, and finds that people are too scared to stand up to the crime syndicate. When warnings to Bannion go unheeded, his car is blown up, and his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando), who was alone in the car, is killed. After accusing his superiors of corruption, Bannion resigns from the police department.
When Lagana's second-in-command Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) punishes a woman in a nightclub—by burning her hand with a cigar butt—Bannion stands up to him, which impresses Stone's girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Debby tries to get friendly with Bannion, and first offers to buy him a drink, but Bannion refuses, saying Debby gets her money from her boyfriend, a thief. After he leaves the bar, Debby follows Bannion back to the hotel where he is now living. When Debby unwittingly reminds Bannion of his late wife, he sends her out of his hotel room. Since Debby had been seen with Bannion, when she returns to Stone's penthouse, he accuses her of talking to Bannion about his activities and throws a pot of boiling coffee in her face. Debby is taken to a hospital by Police Commissioner Higgins, who was playing poker with Stone and his group at the penthouse. With the left side of her face disfigured and half-covered in bandages, Debby returns to Bannion, who finds her a separate, unregistered room at his hotel. Debby identifies the man who had arranged the planting of the dynamite in Bannion's car as Larry Gordon (Adam Williams), one of Stone's associates. Bannion forces Gordon to admit to the car bombing, as well as revealing that Duncan's widow has papers which could expose Stone and Lagana and is collecting blackmail payments from Lagana. Bannion refrains from killing Gordon, instead spreading word that Gordon had talked. Gordon is soon murdered by Stone's men and his body thrown in the river. Bannion then confronts Mrs. Duncan, accusing her of betraying Lucy Chapman, causing her death, and of protecting Lagana and Stone. Cops sent by Lagana arrive before Bannion can strangle Mrs. Duncan, and he departs.
Stone decides to kidnap Bannion's young daughter, Joyce (Linda Bennett), who is staying with her aunt and uncle. At first they are under police guard, but when, at Lagana's behest, the police guard is called away, Joyce's uncle arranges for several army buddies from the war to provide protection. Satisfied that his daughter is in capable hands, Bannion sets off to deal with Stone. As he walks out of the home where his daughter is staying, Lieutenant Wilks (Willis Bouchey) arrives, not only to help protect Bannion's daughter, but also because he's now prepared to make a stand against the mob. Debby Marsh goes to see Mrs. Duncan, noting they are both wearing the same expensive mink coats and have benefited from an association with gangsters, and she proceeds to kill Mrs. Duncan. When Stone returns to his penthouse, Debby throws boiling coffee at him. Stone shoots her, but after a short gun battle with Bannion, who had followed him, Stone is captured. As Debby lies dying, Bannion describes his late wife to her in terms of their endearing relationship, rather than the colorless "police description" of his wife he had given to Debby earlier, and tells Debby that she and his wife would have gotten along well. Stone is then arrested for murder, the late Officer Duncan's damning evidence in the note he left behind for the D.A. is made public, Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted, and Sgt. Bannion returns to his job at Homicide.
The film was based on a serial by William P. McGivern, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post from December 1952 and was published as a novel in 1953. Initially, McGivern's novel was to be produced by Jerry Wald, who wanted either Paul Muni, George Raft or Edward G. Robinson (who worked with director Fritz Lang in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) for the role of Dave Bannion. Columbia Pictures paid $40,000 for McGivern's novel. Lang directed the film while Sydney Boehm wrote it.
Boehm made many changes from the novel such as name changes. Commissioner Higgins is not in the novel and Lieutenant Wilks is the corrupt policeman. An honest policeman called Cranston, who was in the novel, was also omitted from the film.
In the novel, it is not known until the end that the widow of the policeman who'd killed himself (named Deery in the book, Duncan in the film) was blackmailing Lagana. Debby shoots her and then mortally wounds herself. After Stone is cornered by Bannion, he is killed by another policeman. Instead of taking place in Philadelphia, the film takes place in the fictional city of Kenport.
Rex Reason was slated to play either Tierney or Detective Burke, but his agent wanted a larger part. Eventually, Reason wasn't cast and Peter Whitney and Robert Burton were cast respectively in the roles of Tierney and Burke.
In the scene where Stone and Bannion first meet each other, "Put the Blame on Mame" is played by the musical group at the bar. This song was used in the 1946 noir classic Gilda, which starred Ford and Rita Hayworth and was also produced by Columbia.
The New York Times and Variety both gave The Big Heat very positive reviews. Bosley Crowther of the Times described Glenn Ford "as its taut, relentless star" and praises Lang for bringing "forth a hot one with a sting." Variety characterized Lang's direction as "tense" and "forceful." Critic Roger Ebert listed the film among his category of "Great Movies" and he praised the film's supporting actors.
Writer David M. Meyer states that the film never overcomes the basic repulsiveness of its hero, but notes that some parts of the film, though violent, are better than the film as a whole: "Best known is Gloria Grahame's disfigurement at the hands of psycho-thug Lee Marvin, who flings hot coffee into her face."
According to film critic Grant Tracey, the film turns the role of the femme fatale on its head: "Whereas many noirs contain the tradition of the femme-fatale, the deadly spiderwoman who destroys her man and his family and career, The Big Heat inverts this narrative paradigm, making Ford [Det. Bannion] the indirect agent of fatal destruction. All four women he meets—from clip joint singer, Lucy Chapman, to gun moll Debby—are destroyed."
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
In December 2011, The Big Heat was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Proclaiming it "one of the great post-war noir films", the Registry stated that The Big Heat "manages to be both stylized and brutally realistic, a signature of its director Fritz Lang."
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