Film Review: The Big Heat (1953)

Release Date: October 14th, 1953
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Sydney Boehm
Based on: Saturday Evening Post serial and novel by William P. McGivern
Music by: Henry Vars
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin

Columbia Pictures, 89 Minutes

Review:

“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.” – Mike Lagana

Fritz Lang has made several great movies that can be considered masterpieces or pretty close. The Big Heat is not his best but it is definitely one of his best. It also helped solidify Lang, in my mind, as one of the greatest directors that ever lived. Between this film, MMetropolisThe Woman In the WindowScarlet Street and those Dr. Mabuse movies, Fritz Lang has one of the greatest oeuvres of any director that ever lived. Plus there are roughly two dozen other pictures I didn’t mention.

The Big Heat has some pretty brutal moments, even for film-noir. For instance, at one point, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone throws a pot of boiling coffee in the face of Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh, which scars her horribly. Grahame plays her last few scenes with half her face disfigured like a hot blonde female version of the Batman villain Two-Face. It’s a frightening sight, especially for a woman that exudes beauty in a time when movies were all pretty much PG.

The film’s plot is almost like a proto-Punisher story. The main character, Glenn Ford’s Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion, is trying to stop the mob stronghold on his city and its infiltration into his police force but his wife is murdered with a car bomb meant for him. Bannion sends his daughter off to the in-laws house, throws his badge away and becomes a one man revenge spree against the mob that stole his life from him. Needless to say, this movie is intense and man, is it damn good.

Lee Marvin is incredible as Vince Stone, a mob boss that is truly evil to his core. I’ve loved Marvin forever, but this has to be my favorite role of his now. The man is sadistic and Marvin plays the part to perfection with an air of darkness and a confidence that makes you wonder what dark places the actor has been to. Villains and heavies didn’t usually win acting awards back in the old days but Marvin put in a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Jocelyn Brando played Bannion’s wife and her scenes with Ford were really good. You felt a sense of chemistry that only magnified the impact of her horrible death. I think she was a more capable actress than the small and scant roles she usually got, mostly on television.

The Big Heat wasn’t high up on my radar when I started delving deep into noir to celebrate Noirvember. When I saw that it was directed by Lang, had an 8.0 on IMDb and was well regarded by critics, I had to squeeze it in before the month ran out. I’m glad I did, as this is one of the most memorable film-noirs that I have watched out of the hundred or so I’ve seen over the past month.

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