The Big Heat: Fritz Lang inverts gender archetypes to create the first ‘Homme fatale’ in this great film noir

The Big Heat(1953), Directed by the legendary Fritz Lang and starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in lead roles is a great film noir that both expands and inverts a lot of Noir tropes and archetypes.

“In the city of “Kenport”, a police sergeant, Tom Duncan. commits suicide. Investigating the incident, fellow detective Sgt. Dave Bannion discovers that several top cops, including Duncan, have links with Mob boss Mike Lagana and that Duncan’s widow, Bertha, is blackmailing Lagana to keep her secrets. Duncan’s mistress, Lucy, is murdered after she tells Bannion secrets about the Mob. Bannion faces stiff opposition from his superiors in pursuing the case against the mob boss, but he soldiers on, and after a face to face confrontation with Lagana he is marked for death, but the bomb meant for him kills his young wife, Katie, instead. Suspended from the force for disobeying orders, Bannion begins a private pursuit of Lagana and his lieutenants, including the sadistic Vince Stone. Stone’s sexy moll, Debby, takes a shining to Bannion, and Stone punishes her by hurling a pot of boiling coffee in her face. Even in her disfigured state, she helps Bannion fight off his enemies, and Bannion is triumphant in destroying Lagana’s empire. In the end, Bannion is reinstated on the force”

On the surface, this is how Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat(1953) plays out; as a sort of precursor to the rogue-cop movies like Dirty Harry(1971), but you can always expect Fritz Lang to play spoilsport – in a good way- to provide enough subtexts to the film, where his sympathies does not lie with the cop who’s on a crusade for revenge and justice, but rather somewhere else. He tells the story of a heroic cop, while using it to tell a much darker story beneath: Lang questions Bannion’s obsessive quest for vengeance and the desire to “do the right thing” and be “a man” at all costs; and the price is not paid by Bannion, but by the women around him; every women who comes in contact with him one way or the other ends up dead, thus making Bannion the first “Homme fatale” in a film Noir. Lucy, Katie, Bertha and Debby, all perish due to their association with Bannion, though none of them by his hands. It’s made more than obvious that Bannion is causing none of this on purpose; on the contrary, what leads to Katie’s death is Bannion’s attempts at protecting his wife’s honor as her “man”; he could have easily let go the insults that was made on his wife by an unanimous caller on the phone, but he puts two and two together and decides that it was mob boss, Mike Lagana who had insulted his wife and goes after him recklessly. The result, Katie dies from the bomb blast which was meant for Bannion. Bannion remains so blinded by his drive for justice and inner moral conflict that fate seems to take over and destroy every women he wants to protect.

This does not mean the female characters in the film are shortchanged in anyway, on the contrary they are all brilliantly written – by breaking a lot of the existing stereotypes of women in American cinema in general and film Noir in Particular- and performed exceptionally well. The female characters are specifically designed to bring out another theme in the film: the class consciousness of Bannion; Lucy Chapman, the B girl who loved the dead cop, Duncan, and speaks the truth is disbelieved by Bannion because of her class, he would rather believe Duncan’s upper-class wife, Bertha’s, lies, in whom he finds a mirror image of his own wife. Thus betrayed by Bannion, Lucy dies a horrible death. Bannion’s wife, Katie, is shown to be sexually aggressive, and very different from the middle-class American wives (with a husband and child) were portrayed in movies. She isn’t the “good wife\girlfriend” in a Noir who needs to be contrasted with a hypersexualized femme fatale. When she is insulted by someone on the phone, Bannion’s attitude is “How dare someone use such cheap words for my wife”, it’s again his class consciousness that dooms his wife, who trusted him to protect her. And Debby, who likes him and maybe feels sorry for him, gets her face scarred again as a result of Bannion’s indifference to women of her sort. Even after her face is scarred, she’s (indirectly) sent by Bannion to do his “dirty deed” for him by killing Bertha;. After he explains to her how the widow’s death will destroy the mob, and quietly mentioning that he himself almost killed Bertha. When we first meet Debby, we imagine that she’s going to be the sexualized, “femme fatale” of the piece, but Lang uses his subversive tactics with her character as well, as she suffers and later dies for the hero, and not vice a versa, as is the norm with femme fatales in Noirs..

Fritz Lang was one of the greatest filmmakers in the world during the 1920s and early 30s. He made films like Metropolis and ‘M‘ in Germany, that are still copied and extensively referenced. But after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Lang had to flee the country. He arrived in Hollywood in mid 1930s, and had a prolific career, but by the time he was hired to direct “The Big Heat”, his stock had fallen considerably since the days of his silent masterpieces or even his notable Hollywood films “Fury” and “Scarlet Street”. The Big Heat was originally a Saturday Evening Post serial by William P. McGivern about a lone wolf cop’s vengeful crusade against corrupt superiors and a powerful crime boss, The Big Heat was a good enough story to make Columbia pictures studio chief, Harry Cohn, pay $40,000 for the film rights. Though Lang was a well-known visual stylist whose films often contained virtuoso camerawork, by the late 1940s, he no longer believed that elaborate visuals or special effects were necessary to filmmaking. Hence, the film was written, produced, and directed in a classic Hollywood tradition; however, the sheer force of the storytelling makes everything seem more visceral than classic Hollywood would allow. The visceral feeling derives from Lang’s recurring, cynical view that the world is a punishing, unforgiving place, and so a person must find their own meaning within the chaos. Also, his films are extreme indictments of America’s legal system; right from Spencer Tracy’s innocent man facing a lynch mob in “Fury”, Lang keeps attacking, what’s considered the most democratic and impartial legal system in the world for its flaws. Also, prior to making The Big Heat, Lang had to defend himself from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which accused the director of being a communist. The Big Heat was the first film he made after he was cleared, He later felt that he should have stood up to HUAC, as he should have stood up to Hitler and the Nazis, rather than fleeing like a coward. So the character of the cop, Dave Bannion, who stands up to a criminal empire and corrupt superiors fascinated him. The first thing he did after he accepted the offer to helm The Big Heat is to work with the writer, Sydney Boehm, regarding the characterization of Bannion. Bannion had originally been conceived as an educated policeman, able to quote Hume, Locke, and Kant. The erudition was one of the first of the novel’s marginal elements dropped by Boehm. The scenarist made Bannion more of a representative citizen swept up in a nightmare, someone more in sync with Lang’s middle- American complex; another character who became, like the mob victim of “Fury,” Boehm’s work was the best of his career, and his screenplay would earn an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

The casting of Glenn Ford also gives an indication to Lang’s ambitions. The actor made a career out of archetypal American roles. Sometimes he could be a monotonous presence on the screen, but he was also capable of performing with surprising subtlety and distinction. Ford was also known as one of the cinema’s nicest men and squarest shooters. So when the gangsters (accidentally) kill his wife in the film, Ford goes off on a rage and you know there is no force that will stop him without killing him. His performance is effective precisely because of Ford’s nice guy image, the viewer identifies with him as the “Average Man”. The film provides Ford with, what is arguably, his greatest screen role, and his performance is the most powerful of his career. A strong cast was also put together to support Ford; Alexander Scourby as the slippery crime boss Mike Lagana, Jeanette Nolan as the cold Bertha Duncan, and Jocelyn Brando as the doomed Mrs. Bannion; in an early career highlight, playing the cruel gangster Vince Stone, was twenty-nine-year-old Lee Marvin; and in the part of Debby Marsh, the gangster’s moll turned tragic avenging angel, was Gloria Grahame, giving perhaps the most memorable performance of her career. The role was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe, but when her contracted studio “Twentieth century-Fox” quoted a huge price for her services, the filmmakers chose to go with Grahame, who by then had enough experience appearing in cynical, hard-bitten Noir\dramas like Crossover, In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful etc.

As in several of Fritz Lang films, the opening shot focuses on a single object; in “Ministry of Fear” it was a clock, here, it’s the gun in Tom Duncan’s hands: a close-up of a .38 that is taken out of the frame to be used in his suicide. The suicide, which is shot with almost clinical detachment, setting the plot in motion, reflects the detachment with which the news is taken by the cop’s conniving wife. Also, Lang’s obsession with objects of unique shapes and sizes are visible throughout the film, especially in the design of Bannion’s house or the painting of Lagana’s mother in his study. Then there are the Mink coats that both Debby and Bertha wears; Debby goes to see Bertha and notes that they are both wearing the same expensive mink coats; meaning they have both benefited from an association with gangsters. When Bertha attempts to phone Stone in order to get rid of Debby, Debby pulls out a gun and shoots her describing both of them as “sisters under the Mink”; as with the film-noirs of the time, the film is filled with such sardonic wordplay, but Lang keeps the visuals lowkey; the lighting of the film is too bright and less moody for a film noir, it’s only late in the film when the drama gets darker that the more chiaroscuro lighting effects of Noir are employed. The criminals are among Lang’s oiliest. Crime lord Mike Lagana is a glib overlord, and there is no more psychotic villain in the American cinema than the well-groomed Vince Stone: the scene where he destroys Debby’s looks is still shocking for its visceral effect, even if it takes place off-screen. While Bannion forms the quietly powerful moral center of the film, it’s the duo of Vince and Debby that provides the film with excitement and vitality. Lang shows Debby’s divided mental state- her loyalties split between Stone and Bannion- by shooting her mostly in front of mirrors, and so does Vince, who’s a mixture of a dapper gent and a psychotic thug. This is particularly evident in the above mentioned scene; before Stone scalds Debby they have a fight in front of the mirror, which shows the two sides of both the characters. Soon enough, both of them would be physically split into two, after they disfigures each others faces- Debby getting her revenge in the climax when she scalds Stone exactly the same way Stone scalded her.

Lang is not usually very good at portraying marriages on film, but he does rather well with the Bannions’ marriage- the playfulness between the husband and wife; the wife cooking “big steaks” for her husband even as he wonders how she can manages them in his meagre salary. Contrast this with the scene when he confronts Bertha and questions her about her and Tom Duncan’s luxurious existence; but it’s the disintegration of marriages\man-woman relationships that he does so brilliantly, and it is reflected perfectly in the film, starting with the breakdown of the Duncans marriage and ending with death of Debby- her relationship with Bannion not progressing to the romantic stage. But Debby’s affect on Bannion is obvious, she does mellow him to the point where he is not as embittered or hate-filled by the end of the film. Debby aids Bannion in the final shoot-out against Vince, and is mortally wounded. Now, as she lies dying, Bannion cushions her head with her “Mink” fur coat, the spoils of her misspent life, comforting her with words murmured as if he is coming out of a trance; he had earlier kicked out Debby for asking him about his wife, but now for the first time he begins to speak about his dead wife, about what she had meant to him. The words flow on as Debby ceases breathing. Bannion scarcely notices, lost in his reverie. The scene is beautifully poised on this ambiguity; it’s not clear whether he was saying that if Debby had lived, he would have made her his wife, or whether he continues to believe his wife to be superior than Debby, and a romantic liaison between them was impossible. It’s a moment straight out of one of Lang’s silent masterpieces, here bolstered further with dialogue. The film also show shades of Lang’s masterpiece “M”, in the scenes showing the formation of a kind of “Citizen’s vigilante committee” (made up of army vets) that comes together to protect Bannion’s daughter, after Lagana plans to kidnap her in order to bring Bannion to his knees. We also see Bannion’s corrupt superiors changing course and deciding to support Bannion in his fight against Lagana, after the death of Bertha Duncan, as “The Big Heat” is sure to follow soon as the evidence in Bertha’s possession starts tumbling out.

The film has a very interesting final sequence – an epilogue in which we find Bannion back in the force. Unlike “Dirty Harry” who throws away his badge at the end of the film , here, we find the rogue-cop accepting back his badge and returning to work. And once again as he sets out for a new mission, he speaks the ominous words: “Keep the coffee hot”, and when you see the poster on the Notice Board of the precinct exhorting all citizens to “Give Blood now”, it looks like Bannion will keep going on with his (self)righteous pursuits and women around Bannion will continue to be in danger. This is truly one of the great endings for a film Noir- a very ambiguous ending- perfectly suiting this film- that on the surface looks a happy one, but masks a very unpleasant one underneath. So at the fag end of his American film career, Fritz Lang finally found a film that’s perfect mix of something that’s purely American and also is perfectly in sync with his personal tastes. “The Big Heat” ranks right up there (or perhaps even above) his Hollywood classics like Fury, Man Hunt, and Scarlet Street.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s