Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm based on the Saturday Evening Post Serial by William P. McGivern
My Uncle Billy's favorite actor as a kid, I'm told, was Glenn Ford. I don't think he had any particular reason for it, or even really knew much of his work; I think he just liked the name and it came out of his mouth randomly quite easily as a kid. Like, as a sly backhanded insult, "Who do I look like Glenn Ford?", something like that that he'd say randomly in weird situations. I remember saying Alex Wright occasionally like that when I was young which is even more unusual 'cause that's just an obscure pro wrestler from the '90s that nobody remembers.
Anyway, I can't say I'm that much more familiar with his work either; when I think of Glenn Ford, I think of my Uncle, I think of "Blackboard Jungle", and I think of "The Big Heat", the 1953 film noir that, on the surface seems inexplicable in it's greatness. Even a genre as formulaic as film noir, the great films usually have something distinct or iconic about them within the narrative. There's an iconic image in the film, the shot of Gloria Grahame's face half-bandaged after she's had her face scolded from a pot of hot coffee is iconic, but other than that, "The Big Heat" seems almost cliche in comparisons to other films. A good cop, Bannion (Ford) decides to clean the town of the corrupt influence, in this case, headed by Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and represented in pure evil by Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). In response, they go after Bannion, including murdering his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando), and yet, he inevitably succeeds against all odds.
However, there's something almost sardonic in the film. On a subversive level. Bannion isn't just a straight-laced cop, he's a little too straight-laced. Even Joe Friday would tell him to lighten up a bit about the corruption. Sure, the inciting incident that gets him on this journey is a fellow cop's suicide, but the cop himself was on the Mob's payroll. Bertha (Jeanette Nolan), his wife tries to write it off as her husband being sick, but Lucy (Dorothy Green) says he was in perfect health. One of them ends up dead, which not only surprises him, and as Roger Ebert points out, doesn't make Bannion think that the one that's alive might also be working with the Mafia. He also seems to make him completely unaware that his family would be in danger after going to Laguna's house and threatening him. This guy Laguna, basically runs the town. He owns the politicians, he owns the police, including the Commission (Howard Wendell) that's telling Bannion to back off, and runs the gambling in town and meanwhile this cop seems more delusional than Leslie Neilsen in one of "The Naked Gun" movies.
Everything is played for realism, sometimes deathly serious, but it wouldn't be that surprising to find somebody making a direct remake of the movie as a comedic spoof. Bannion barely looks like he grieves after his wife is killed, and at the end of the movie, he's back on the job. He is a single father now; who is watching his kid? I mean, I'm sure someone is, but who?
The more I think about the movie, the more I actually compare the film to "M", Director Fritz Lang's previous masterpiece about the police and the underworld. That movie, has some sublininal undertones as well, although most of it is about how the Nazi movement grew from underground, and that led to Lang fleeing Germany after the war. There's always something going on underneath in his films, sometimes literally there's a top world and an underneath world in his movies, perhaps most famously in his best film, "Metropolis", but in "The Big Heat", it seems like the world's are too similar and blended, and the only one who doesn't notice or care is the detective. That's the way it always is in these films, but here, it's practically an ironic joke.
And it must be in hindsight too. "The Big Heat". The movie was generally well-received at the time, but didn't get any Oscar nominations or any other major accolades, and this was just after Gloria Grahame won the Oscar the year before for "The Bad and the Beautiful", yet this is her most famous performance. I don't how to rank Lee Marvin's performances, he has so many of them it's hard to keep track, but damn this is a great one. He's over-the-top and still quietly menacing. He knows he can do anything and take anyone and get away with it, and he loves it. We buy into Bannion's quest because these bad guys are indeed this sadistic. Perhaps that means Bannion is the hero, or more precisely is in the moral right, but at what cost...?
Still, I can see how someone like Bannion can be so unaware of just how much impact he has. I certainly have had moments where I seem to be completely unaware of how my impact can effect others and how I might not be trying to cause chaos or havoc, but suddenly, I do or say the wrong thing and suddenly,- well, I don't get women killed just by having them talk to me like Bannion seems to do, but if you are that unaware of yourself, it can happen. In another world, Dave Bannion could be Michael Scott or David Brent, running an office thinking everybody likes them, when in fact he's the reason for their pain. I think that's the secret of "The Big Heat", there's so much going on underneath that you keep finding yourself fascinated by it and just drift into the movie every time. It's familiar, in genre and story, but perhaps it's more opaque in the way it goes about it than it does, or maybe it's that it's too familiar to how much we really are sometimes?