Since I’ve been reading about him recently it seemed like a good time to revisit Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. This 1953 movie is one of Lang’s most admired American films, and with good reason.
Detective-Sergeant Dave Bannion is a good cop and a loving family man. He enjoys his job, he has an unpretentious but comfortable house, his marriage is happy. He is living the American Dream. Until he has to investigate the suicide of a fellow cop. The case will lead him into a world of high-level corruption and gangsterism and threaten to destroy everything he has.
Mobster Mike Lagana runs the city, with Vince (Lee Marvin) to enforce his will on anyone who doesn’t like it. Vince is not just a thug. He has a streak of genuine sadism and a temper that is beyond his control. Vince is in some ways an accident waiting to happen - sooner or later his temper will cause him to make an error of judgment that may well bring the whole house of cards crashing down.
Bannion has a tendency to step on toes at the best of times and when he steps on Mike Lagana’s toes he feels the full force of the gangster’s wrath in a terrifying moment of violence that leaves Bannion with nothing but a steely determination to bring Lagana down.
Rather typically for Lang, Bannion is drawn into a nightmare partly by sheer chance (he just happened to be the detective assigned to the cop suicide case) and partly because of his own personality (that tendency to step on toes).
Bannion finds an unexpected ally in Vince’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Graham). Debby has felt the force of Vince’s temper once too often, with disastrous consequences not just for herself but ultimately for Vince and Lagana.
This seems to me to be almost a perfect movie of its type. Everything works just as it should. Everything is precisely balanced. There are devastating emotional moments but both Lang and his cast avoid the pitfall of sentimentality. Sydney Boehm’s screenplay is well-constructed and ideal for Lang’s purposes. The characters are finely drawn.
Glenn Ford does not succumb to the temptation to overplay Dave Bannion. Instead he plays him with ice cold control, making a perfect contrast Vince’s out-of-control red-hot violence. Lee Marvin is superbly vicious. Gloria Grahame is outstanding, playing Debby as a bubbly good-time girl who is not only not as dumb as she looks (in fact not dumb at all) but is also possessed of the strength of character to deal with her own personal tragedy. Debby always knew she was playing a dangerous game being with Vince but she gambled that she would always be smart enough to avoid the consequences.
I cannot accept the theory (quite common in some circles) that Bannion is the agent of destruction bringing about the doom of all the women he encounters. Anyone who watched the movie without trying to impose trendy postmodern political subtexts upon it would have noticed that in fact the women are all destroyed by mobsters. It’s crime that destroys them, not Dave Bannion. Crime destroys guilty women and innocent women. Lang was always fascinated by crime but he lacked the illusions that many modern intellectuals have on that subject.a Lang always understood that crime destroys.
I also cannot accept the popular view that the cop is always the bad guy and the criminal is always the victim of poverty. I don’t think Lang was ever naïve enough to believe that. Even when, in a movie such as M, he makes us feel empathy for the criminal monster, the monster is still a monster.
Lang believed that everyone had the potential to be a murderer, but that doesn’t make every Lang hero a murderer. And Lang was always aware of the evil behind the most glamorous of master criminals. Mike Lagana is a descendant of Dr Mabuse, a spider sitting in his web manipulating and destroying people. Dave Bannion, Katie Bannion, Lucy Chapman, Debby Marsh, are all drawn into his web. Dave Bannion and Debby find the courage to fight back.
Of course what makes it a truly great movie is that it is open to interpretation and I have to admit that my interpretation may be considered slightly eccentric by some people!
A stylish and complex movie by a master film-maker.