REVIEW: ‘The Big Heat’

German Expressionism bled into American culture in the form of a newly founded genre, Noir. Several German filmmakers migrated at the beginning of World War II to escape Nazism. Despite the artistic integrity and success of these filmmakers, few went on to produce particularly essential films. Fritz Lang wasn’t exactly an exception to this generalization, but if any of his American films were to be measured amongst his expressionist masterpieces, it would be The Big Heat.

The Big Heat is one of the greatest of Noir films. It fulfils each of the expected clichés while avoiding becoming predictable and permitting a few classic scenes. It is a glorious black-and-white film with a classic noir look and a potent story of grand-scale corruption. What more can you ask of a Noir film?

The story outlines Officer Bannion, an honest cop who looks into the death of a fellow cop, Tom Duncan. It is a supposed suicide, but this is quickly ruled impossible. When he discovers an unusual amount of money in possession of the deceased, he begins to uncover the complexities of large-scale corruption. If this sounds a lot like L.A. Confidential, it is.

Glenn Ford gives a pretty solid person as the light in the dark of the police force, but the most notable performance of the film is Gloria Grahame as one of the best femme fatales on the silver screen. What makes this individual film noir a work of excellence is the extremity and dark nature of the film. The depiction is horrifying and unforgiving to Bannion as his life gets beat and torn around senselessly. This shapes his character and sets him on a near Batman level vendetta. What sets this film apart from other  Fritz Lang American films is the elevated complexity of the storyline, the two-sided nature of the Femme Fatale, and one very great moment.

The film’s great moment is a splash of hot coffee to the face, and then a delayed retribution. This is a great example of exactly how heartless this film is. Even by noir standards, The Big Heat is cold. The pain inflicted on Bannion is reflected by the harshness of Grahame’s femme fatale.

The ending is mildly uplifting but not enough to fully redeem the damage inflicted.  The darkness of the film’s theme is an intrinsic part of film noir, of course, which is largely what made it popular during World War II and the brief years afterward. The Big Heat came out in 1953 to solid critical acclaim and decent box office success. It met the time’s general mood without implying overt political connotations. The film is not a masterpiece, and does not contain the depth or originality of Lang’s German films, but it is one of the best films of a great genre. It is the summation that concluded his career on a higher note than one might’ve expected given the films leading up to this one.

Here is a film that has aged very well, with each viewing, it still has the emotional tenacity to engage viewers and the film’s content still seems potent today. I’d like to believe it was one of the bigger inspirations for L. A. Confidential. The similarities are endless, most notably the focus on grand-scale corruption. The film was once just a genre piece that has now elevated to the level of classic. It is one of Roger Ebert’s list of Great Movies, and deservingly so.

The dark nature of the films violent content is its virtue. The quick splash of coffee to the face and embedded morals of revenge are what make the film timeless to me. While it may not score points for pure originality, it certainly is a passable way to view a master at work. And unlike The Woman in the Window, The Big Heat is more than just entertainment; it is a work of art. It is a story told through the eyes of the truly innocent and displays pain without restraint and resistance with patience. This film and its protagonist Bannion fight fire with fire. It is about sacrifice and revelation and a respectable way to cap off a great career.

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