The Big Heat (1953)

Directed by Fritz Lang, written by Sydney Boehm (screenplay), William P. McGivern (Saturday Evening Post serial)

“The coming years are going to be just fine, Mr. Bannion.”
“There aren’t going to be any coming years for you.”

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Noir is black, but black isn’t necessarily noir. Even though the translation is literally the same. (That old definition of ‘literally,’ before the day dictionaries changed the meaning to both ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’ because the general population is too stupid to understand what ‘literally’ actually means. [Note: It was on this same day the countdown to the end of the world officially began.] But I digress. What were we just talking about?)

Right, noir. Black. Darkness. Everyone reading this specializes in it, and we all know the dark is much more than violence, or hate, or murder, rape or politics. First, one element in which noir film excels is plain old despair. A person looking around his or her world, defeated. Every day a hardship, every movement requiring a gritting of the teeth before progressing. In film noir this isn’t always just a character or three, sometimes it’s the environment itself despairing. In most cases something horrific has happened to a character we’ve begun to care about. The same types of things that happen to us in (so-called) real life. Car accidents. Cancer. Murder. Airplane engines falling from the sky. In film, these events are darkness. In life, they’re just life.

Second, the characters in noir can be whip-crack smart, with evidence often manifesting in dialogue as well as their abilities to follow rabbit-hole mysteries opened up before them; and they’re driven. When tragedy strikes, we here on Earth lower our heads and whimper quietly to ourselves. When it happens to them, when they face despair, they move. Decisively. For better or, much more often, for worse. But they move.

Which brings us to The Big Heat.

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Detective Sergeant Bannion (Glenn Ford) is investigating a case that’s bringing him perilously close to political corruption within the city and the gangsters city officials may work for (Lee Marvin, Alexander Scourby), and in a misguided attempt to get Bannion to back off the criminals strike at his personal life. Hard.

Bannion flies into action, mixing it up with the gangsters and with the girlfriend of the most dangerous of them, the stunning, seductive and sly Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame).

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Besides a brilliantly quotable script

“Am I going to die?”
“If I said you’d live another hundred years, you’d call me a liar.”

and multiple shocking events, Ford’s performance here is deeply fascinating. Initial impressions were that Sergeant Bannion’s (soon to be ex-Sergeant Bannion’s) forward progress was reminiscent of The Terminator, just back in 1953 instead of the eighties, but that’s not entirely accurate. Sure, he tore through his enemies like paper, but The Terminator was cold, calculating and impersonal. Bannion was barely controlled, murderous, seething with hate and vengeance and just aching for one of the criminals he was after to trigger him even slightly, just for a second, so the ex-detective could burn him down. You could feel it radiating; he wanted to destroy something. Anything.

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And then you’ve got the femme fatale, a woman smarter than everyone around her but underplaying it wonderfully, enough so that no one catches on. Almost. If she wasn’t so dangerous, and if I wasn’t still in love with Joan Fontaine from Rebecca, I’d be all over her right up until the money ran out.

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So the performances are there, the writing is there, the lighting is there, the direction is there, and the darkness is there. But before anyone picks this up thinking it’s The Punisher, just know that this’s actually a detective story, a murder mystery, and above all, a film noir—one of the greatest of them all.

“Tell that to your mother.”

5 stars

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