© 2013 William Ahearn
Considered a “film noir” by many, “The Big Heat” is classically hard-boiled – the antithesis of noir – and the hero, Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion, falls in among Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. What softens the edges of this hard-boiled hero is Glenn Ford, a seemingly straight-arrow, all-American boy and unlike Spade or Hammer, he’s a real police officer and not a sleuth.
A cop commits suicide and Dave Bannion begins a routine investigation where some ends don’t add up and a source is killed soon after talking to him. When his investigation continues his wife is killed by a car bomb meant for him. The police department impedes his investigation and he goes it on his own. Unlike most postwar Hollywood crime films, the corruption in the story goes beyond the usual single bad apple that exists within the municipal government although as Bosley Crowther in his 1953 review of the film notes “No matter about the implications of shady cops and political goons. The script is so vague in this department that no specific allusions may be found.” The corruption is all inferred. The film also varies from the usual 1950’s crime-doesn’t-pay movie in the varied roles women play and the consequences that result.
In his June 6, 2004, review of “The Big Heat” as part of the Great Movie series, Roger Ebert notes “There is another level coiling away underneath [the surface of the film], a subversive level in which Lang questions the human cost of Bannion’s ethical stand. Two women lose their lives because they trust Bannion, and a third is sent to her death because of information Bannion gives her. That may not have been his conscious intention, but a cop as clever as Bannion should know when to keep his trap shut.” (If Bannion’s wife is counted among the female dead who surround him, the number is actually four.) What is also interesting is the young black man who is falsely accused of a crime and helps Bannion crack the case in the book is missing from the film as well as Bannion’s literary erudition.
The cost that Ebert mentions in terms of the price women pay in the film is a recent observation by critics. It seems similar to critics missing the significance of an innocent man being executed by the state in “Scarlet Street.” In 1953, Manny Farber in The Nation mentioned two incidents of violence toward women as “interesting impressions of how a practical-minded male operates in crisis” and the role of women isn’t noticed or commented on by other contemporary critics. Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang doesn’t mention it and neither does Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang or Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast.
In From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell, writes, “Lang’s women are generally Madonnas or Mary Magdalens, and their interest lies not in their psychological complexity, but in the strange conjunction of the archetype and the idiosyncratic. In ‘The Big Heat,’ the opposing principles – Jocelyn Brando’s [Katie Bannion] Madonna and Gloria Grahame’s [Debby Marsh] whore – gradually merge and, with the death of the former and the atonement of the latter, are symbolically fused.”
The robot Maria and the flesh-and-blood Maria in Lang’s “Metropolis” were also “symbolically fused” and Haskell also references the “whore” of the Marlene Dietrich character and the murdered virgin sweetheart of “Rancho Notorious.” There’s a different dynamic in play in “The Big Heat” and that is that the role of the “whore” who atones or is redeemed by the “good” person, in this case the widowed detective, is another recycled theme from the postwar Hollywood crime film and we see the exact same redemption – with a different gender – in Anthony Mann’s “Raw Deal” where Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) finds the humanity in his heart and saves the “good girl,” Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), before he dies. This isn’t mythology; it’s morality and far from being Langian, it is the work of Joe Breen and the Hays Office and this is another example of the notion of redemption. Or, it could have been in the book just as it is and Debby isn’t a mythical whore or a morally redeemed saint and, in that case, is just a dead and once vengeful woman.
Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, states that when Gloria Grahame [Debby Marsh] tossed coffee in Lee Marvin’s [Vince Stone] face it is “a revenge worthy of Kriemhild” and “In view of these outrages, Lang’s violent mise-en-scène implies, the world must be destroyed before it can be purified.”
Kriemhild – being cinema’s most extreme example of revenge – may have bought into destruction being a purifying process and “Kriemhild’s Revenge” is an utterly nihilistic fable that takes revenge to its irrational and inevitable conclusion. To position “The Big Heat” in a similar vein is absurd. Bannion’s revenge – first as police officer then as rogue suspended cop – is not against the world, it is against the underworld, the criminals and grafters. He’s not out to destroy the world; he’s out to save it. Therein is the fallacy of trying to equate Lang’s German films with his Hollywood films: The worldviews are polar opposites. And, as noted above, Debby Marsh is no Kriemhild. Marsh’s revenge is based on vanity – Vince Stone ruined her face – and her responding to the honesty and goodness of Bannion, is another Hollywood redemption of a “bad girl.”
What’s interesting in all of this is what’s missing and what’s missing is any reference to Inspector Karl Lohmann, the police inspector played by Otto Wernicke in Lang’s “M” and “The Last Testament of Dr Mabuse.” While critics struggle to connect Lang’s German films with his Hollywood films by erroneously evoking Hans Beckert, Kriemhild and all the nonsense about Lang being a “German expressionist,” they ignore Lohmann and the depiction of the German police that one critic described as a “rival” gang to the criminals. Lohman dispels the notion – spread by Lang himself – that his later German films were filled with anticipating the rise of the Nazis. In “The Big Heat,” Bannion is a moral force and his revenge is for the greater good and at the end of the film Bannion is back on the police force and all is right with the world. Good has, once again, defeated evil. That is pure Hollywood. This is far from the ambiguous endings of “M” and “The Last Testament of Dr Mabuse” where Lohmann feels more helpless than heroic. The case could be made that Bannion is far more representational of a repressive moral force than Lohmann and the state – in Lohmann’s case – is an ineffectual bureaucracy while in Bannion’s case the individual is the moral force cleansing society of the “thieves.”
Whether it’s noir or hardboiled or a crime film with a misogynist bent, has been overtaken by recent research that posits that “The Big Heat” is an allegory of Hiroshima or, at least, anxieties about the atomic bomb in the US. In “‘Keep the Coffee Hot, Hugo’: Nuclear Trauma in Lang’s ‘The Big Heat,’” written by Walter Metz in 1997 for Film Criticism, points out how pathetically Hollywood responded to the use of atomic bombs in World War II (and the equally anemic response by Hollywood to the Holocaust) cloaking explicitness of atomic anxieties in films such as “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” and “Kiss Me Deadly.”
“I want,” Metz writes, “to investigate how nuclear trauma permeated early 1950s culture, particularly in the film genre known as film noir. I select Fritz Lang’s ‘The Big Heat’ since its nuclear referents are not on the surface of the text: we can use the text to see how ingrained nuclear discourse became in the everyday lives of Americans of the Cold War period.”
Metz makes an interesting case about how the reality of the Atomic Age had an effect upon the social lives of Americans in the postwar years. His argument how about the film uses signage as clues and his reading of the film relies on the car bombing taking place off-screen as referencing Hiroshima and Debby’s coffee-scalded face as suggesting the effects of a nuclear bomb on blast-area victims. The theory could be called the Kracauer Fallacy, and how it operates will be covered in different essay.
“The Big Heat” is one of the few really good films that Lang would make in Hollywood and certainly the last even with the cold distance that infects many of Lang’s later films and works in this one’s favor. Lang was hired a month before principal photography began and his input into the script was limited. It also had one of the shortest production schedules and Lang’s only problem with the cast involved Gloria Grahame. Lang was reunited with cinematographer Charles Lang who had shot “You and Me” with Fritz Lang some fifteen years prior.