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    Heated Memories

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Having recently caught up with the impressive 2015 thriller Sicario (about an idealistic FBI agent used as a “legal” shield by a covert government task force in the escalating war against drugs around the U.S.-Mexico border) and last week reconsidering 1988’s Mississippi Burning (in which the FBI explosively ups the ante in its relentless pursuit of the racist murderers of three civil rights activists in 1964), it’s now time to reconsider a seminal film noir from a master director that shares the morally murky DNA and the relentless drive of those white-knuckle suspensers: Fritz Lang’s nihilistic but devastatingly riveting The Big Heat (1953). How far do you go, how much do you lose of yourself, how many sacrifices do you exact from others to wipe out widespread, insidious, omnipresent evil? When Lang, never truly at home in the Hollywood system despite turning out impressive thrillers like Fury (1936), Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1945), came to Columbia Pictures in January 1953, he was matched up to a grim and trenchant piece of material by novelist William P. McGivern, to be adapted by Sydney Boehm, whose police-beat journalism experience on the New York Evening Journal would capture its pervasive darkness with acute precision. Glenn Ford plays dogged detective Dan Bannion, investigating the suicide of a fellow policeman with ties to a criminal organization whose tentacles ensnare the civic and corporate lifeblood of a fictional Midwestern city. Bannion’s pursuit of justice, triggering mayhem that shatters his family and brings harm to those who would offer assistance in breaking the murderous gang’s stranglehold, becomes as brutal and obsessive as his antagonists. Patrick McGilligan insightful biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, recounts a conversation Lang later had with author McGivern in which he asserted that “heated memories of his own experience” fueled him during The Big Heat. The lead character “appealed powerfully to Lang’s own sense of frustration and humiliation at being forced to leave Germany. In a sense, Lang said, he himself had stood up to Goebbles and Hitler, but did so by running away.” The unlikely heroine of the piece, a gang moll named Debby, played magnificently by newly minted The Bad and the Beautiful Academy Award® winner Gloria Grahame, also conveys the intensity of those “heated memories.” McGilligan writes, “The director obviously likes Debby – and her likability became central to the film’s stoic warmth and humanism.” As Debby’s unregenerately nasty boyfriend Vince, Lee Marvin intrigued Lang “by what he saw in the curve of [his] upper lip, a suggestion of absolute evil and corruption.” “Filming the incident where Vince pitches hot coffee into Debby’s face – after she has witnessed his humiliation by Bannion – Lang’s camera gravitated not to the victim, but to the perpetrator,” McGilligan writes, intensifying the horror of this iconic scene. The Big Heat goes all the way in depicting what it takes to bring down absolute evil, leaving its characters and its viewers scarred and spellbound. McGilligan concludes that “The director’s best works since 1934 (Fury, Man Hunt and Scarlet Street among them) were mixtures of German style and Hollywood convention…But here, in the twilight of his career, he tapped into a genre every bit as American, yet as Langian as anything he had ever done, and he managed to make his most compassionate film: a gesture of grace and wisdom from an aging master.” Outfitted with a new commentary by Twilight Time regulars Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, plus video appreciations by directors Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, The Big Heat returns to the TT hi-def Blu-ray library (alongside the currently available Man Hunt) on February 16. Preorders open tomorrow, February 3.