Big Entertainment: Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (Columbia, 1953)

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Fritz Lang is one of the most influential film directors of all time. Getting his start in Germany’s famed Ufa Studios, Lang became world renown for masterpieces like  METROPOLIS (1927) and M (starring Peter Lorre, 1931), and his Dr. Mabuse series. Lang fled the Nazi regime in the early 30s, coming to America to ply his trade. He became a top Hollywood director particularly famous for film noir classics like SCARLET STREET (1945, a personal favorite of mine), THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1954). One of the best of these is 1953’s  THE BIG HEAT.

The movie starts with the suicide of Tom Duncan, head of the police records bureau. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in and interviews the widow. Bannion’s a family man with loving wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) and young daughter. While at home enjoying some quality time, he receives a call from a woman named Lucy claiming Duncan didn’t kill himself. He meets her at local watering hole The Retreat, where she tells him Duncan and her were lovers, and he planned on divorcing his wife. Bannion doesn’t believe the B-girls tale until she’s found tortured and strangled the next day.

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Bannion decides to investigate, but is warned to stay off the case by his boss, Lt. Wilkes. He presses further anyways, going back to The Retreat and speaking with an uncooperative barkeep. A threatening call to his wife sends Bannion to drop in on Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), an old-school gangster who runs the rackets, not to mention most of the city’s politicians. Bannion’s called on the carpet again by Wilkes. Frustrated, Bannion and his wife decide to have a night out at the movies. While he tucks in his daughter, Katie goes to warm up the family car. An explosion rocks the house, as the auto has been rigged with dynamite, killing Katie and shattering Bannion’s idyllic world.

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Lt. Wilkes and the police commissioner assure Bannion justice will be served, but Bannion’s not buying it. He turns in his badge and seeks solo vengeance. Leaving his daughter with best friend Hal, Bannion goes on a personal crusade to find Katie’s killer and rid the city of Lagana’s influence. He tangles with Lagana’s top torpedo Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who has a penchant for burning women. Stone’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), a bubbleheaded lush, makes a play for Bannion after Stone ditches her at the bar, but is rejected. When Stone finds out, the maniac scalds her with a hot pot of coffee, scarring her for life. The movie then kicks into high gear as new alliances are formed, secrets are revealed, and Bannion finally gets the closure he’s been looking for in a violent climax.

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Glenn Ford is perfect for the part of Dave Bannion, a stand-up guy if there ever was one. Bannion’s singleness of purpose drives THE BIG HEAT, as Ford’s warm scenes with his family are juxtaposed with the brutality of the rest of the movie. Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) gives another of her fine performances as Debby. Vince Stone was a breakthrough role for Lee Marvin, and the coffee throwing scene is jolting. Other notables in the cast are Willis Boucher, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, and Adam Williams. Look quickly and you’ll find Carolyn Jones, Dan Seymore, John Doucette, and Sidney Clute in smaller roles.

Behind the scenes, Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz) worked his magic as director of photography. One of Hollywood’s premier cinematographers, Lang was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning in 1934 for A FAREWELL TO ARMS. His work can be found in such diverse films as DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934), THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR (1947), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), BLUE HAWAII (1961), WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967), and THE LOVE MACHINE (1971). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1991. Screenwriter Sydney Boehm has quite an impressive resume, too, responsible for such fare as UNION STATION (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (1956), and SHOCK TREATMENT (1964). Everyone contributes to the success of THE BIG HEAT, and if noir’s your thing, it’s a must-see. Even if you’re not a noir fan, you’ll enjoy the performances of Ford and company, and the talent behind the lens. THE BIG HEAT is big entertainment.

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