By Theo MacDonald
Fritz Lang's film is an upper echelon noir that doesn't transcend its genre, which in this case is a good thing. While something like Touch of Evil uses a noir story but clearly aspires towards ends of high art and universality, Lang keeps the form of The Big Heat very contained and intimate to the genre. When his camera moves it is subtle, effective movement that does not draw attention to itself but stimulates the drive of the pulpy story. It is like genre music: there are cues, hi-hats upon which Lang dollies towards a character's dissembling or bewildered face, a car that is about to blow up, a killer's apartment door. The close-ups are spectacular, mountains made of the craggy faces of Glenn Ford (playing the outraged cop Dave Bannion) and Lee Marvin (unsurprisingly the bad guy), while all of the locations are alive, from the cigarette smoke in the dive bar The Retreat to Lee Marvin's balcony with a view over the city which has surely inspired countless gangster films. Sydney Boehm's screenplay, adapted from a serialised novel by William P. Mcgivern, builds like a traditional mystery-thriller, duplicity and double-crossing leading to escalating tensions and acts of human cruelty, which along with the film's cinematography plants it firmly in the noir genre. Lang presents an idealised version of the American dream in the domestic scenes of Bannion with his wife and child, then introduces inexplicable evil to it, meaning he spends the rest of the film in the recesses of the latter trying to rediscover the light of the former.
Overall, the most impressive feat that Lang achieves with the story and genre is making a revenge film that avoids the only two messages revenge films ever seem to have: revenge as catharsis and revenge as meaningless (the trite message we were rewarded with by The Revenant). Instead, Lang's message is one of solidarity. Even though its protagonist is a rogue police officer, The Big Heat does not prescribe the removal of evil through avenging it alone, but asserts the importance of standing together in defiance of it. This is exemplified both in the scene with the old army buddies guarding Bannion's daughter and also the original fact that it is the protagonist's selfish neglect of this truth when he ignores a nightclub waitress' pleas that sets off the whole chain of events and leads to the death of his wife and happiness. Only a European director and a visionary like Lang could make such an anti-individualist statement about America.
The Big Heat is screening as part of the BFI's 'Born to be Bad' Gloria Grahame season. Here her performance is bittersweet, both a tribute to her humour and warmth and a lament for the immutable fate of the characters she would play. As she opines at one point, "Just sitting here thinking is pretty rough when you've spent most of your life not thinking."