Post World War II Hollywood was famed for its darker tales that emphasised the cynical attitudes of Americans who had seen the rise of fascism and millions of lives lost. The 40s and 50s looked towards European filmmakers and inspired their own visual style from their roots. As well as this, the crime drama that had taken Hollywood by storm during the Great Depression was still immensely popular – thus the two combined created the genre of ‘film noir’.
It wasn’t just a low-key, black-and-white look at stories of crime, but film noir eventually became a chain of codes and conventions that can be seen in any circular pattern of Hollywood genre films. The dialogue of noir was much wiser, quick-witted and no-nonsense in how it spoke to the audience through narration or to other characters on screen. The mise-en-scene benefitted from dark, gloomy scenery such as alleyways, warehouses with fog, rain and jazz overtures for good measure. It’s easy to deconstruct each popular fable from this era and show that there is little difference in them, but whilst they all share similar traits, few stand alone in taking the concept of noir into their own – Double Indemnity (1944), Pickup on South Street (1953) and of course, The Big Heat (1953). Directed by Fritz Lang and based upon a 1953 novel and serial by William P. McGivern, The Big Heat centers on homicide detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who has to slowly take apart a crime syndicate that wreaks control of his city. Whilst its plot reads as nothing out of the ordinary, Sydney Boehm’s screenplay takes the emphatic parts of what makes a film noir great whilst still allowing it to differ.
Firstly looking at the character of Dave Bannion, our lead character is not the usual anti-hero that we’ve seen before. While he’s by no means on the ethical side of the law, he’s not tempted into a life of crime or selfish motivations. There’s usually a turning point where our leads cannot return from, but Bannion never stoops this low despite a significant loss that’s killed thanks to the syndicate he tries to take down. Bannion’s ability to stay on the right side of the law is also due to the fact that the most common trait of noir, the femme fatale, is no longer a lethal man-eater looking to ensnare her lover. Played by Gloria Grahame, Debby Marsh, girlfriend to second-in-command Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) is not bound by the restrictions of seduction and beauty, but instead a revenge-focused killer who only shows a great admiration for our hero. And although noir is often accustomed to clouding a grey area when pointing a finger at a true antagonist, Lee Marvin’s Stone is as brutish as any villain Hollywood has seen: showing no remorse or empathy, enraged with pure anger that culminates when he scalds his girlfriend Marsh with hot coffee.
Domestic abuse in the form of physical burns is one of many extremes of violence that occurs in The Big Heat. With violence being a real no-no subject even in 50s Hollywood, this film goes further in this regard that others wouldn’t. It seems to be reminiscent of the later revival of auteur mob movies by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola that depicted violence to demonstrate its message of anti-violence.
Nearly 70 years later, The Big Heat is as intense and rapid of a thriller as it was back then, and an essential watch for any fan of the genre. Highly contrasting the grey area found in these stories, The Big Heat decides to take a stand in depicting good and evil to demonstrate that sometimes there’s no in between.
Header Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.