The Big Heat (1953)
The Big Heat (1953)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 30 min.

Release Date: October 14th, 1953 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Fritz Lang Actors: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan




t begins with a suicide and a matching letter, which isn’t revealed to the audience. Tom Duncan is the deceased, a veteran police sergeant with a grieving wife, Bertha (Jeanette Nolan), and something to hide. Bertha has something to conceal, too. Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in to investigate, but doesn’t find questionable motives – it’s an open-and-shut suicide. During dinner, however, Bannion is summoned to meet with Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), a brunette bargirl, who was secretly in love with Tom, and possesses more information on the case. She divulges that Duncan had no reason to kill himself, especially after his wife agreed to divorce him.

When Bannion confronts Bertha, she admits that Tom cheated on her at least four separate times and that his suicide had something to do with poor health. Shortly thereafter, the body of Lucy is found, having been beaten, tortured, strangled, and then dumped from a car. Even when certain suspects are undeniably involved, refuse to speak, or dish out threats, Bannion is determined to get to the bottom of it all. Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), a hoodlum-turned-politician in a fancy suit, who runs the town with the money he made during his prohibition gangster days, is assuredly behind it, and Bannion won’t sit idly by. Dave is a tough guy who isn’t afraid of violent persuasion when it can get results, sticks up for himself against politically influential bigwigs, and pushes people around who deserve it; he’s driven by a sense of honor and duty that no one else on the force exhibits.

When his wife is killed by a car bomb, he quits the Department and adopts revenge as his method of coping – nothing will stop him from getting justice, even if he has to break a few laws to do it. As Bannion pokes around, discovering his leads have all been bumped off, he’ll eventually reach Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), Lagana’s right-hand man, and Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), Vince’s money-spending, booze-guzzling squeeze. The women in the film, from Bertha to Debby, display forwardness, uncommon strength, and a powerful presence rarely seen in Hollywood pictures.

“The Big Heat” is a mystery of the grandest kind – one that unfolds carefully, divulging only enough information for the audience to behold a few clues before the hero does, while never being too bogged down by unanswered questions. And yet viewers aren’t intended to be quite as crafty as the detective, who can spontaneously gain the upper hand with some slick maneuvering and clever dialogue. Bannion is the insult-spewing, coolest and craftiest hard-boiled cop around, despite being defined by his picturesque home and family.

Bannion has a wife (Jocelyn Brando) and a kid and many scenes are devoted to establishing the detective as a family man, a loving husband, and a cop approaching his limits of control, unable to prevent the stresses of his job from creeping into his relationships. Some of these moments are a bit heavy-handed, with the point cemented early on, only to become truly substantial when the crooks target his significant others. They do, however, serve to heighten the transition from earnest flatfoot to cold-blooded avenger.

Lee Marvin turns in a memorable, strong performance as the woman-beating thug who horrifically splashes hot coffee in Debby’s face, trumping the violence found in many of the films of the ‘50s. Director Fritz Lang, a master of German expressionist cinema, with screenwriter Sydney Boehm working from a Saturday Evening Post serial by ex-police reporter William P. McGivern, have no problems with a high body count, confronting death realistically, and showing visual violence against women – by both the protagonists and the antagonists. In classic film noir fashion, it proves that the line between the two sides of humanity can be incredibly murky indeed.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10