Upon being named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for preservation as a cultural and artistic treasure in 2011, the brisk and scalding crime thriller benchmark The Big Heat (1953), which opened 65 years ago yesterday, was succinctly but effectively described in the official announcement: “One of the great postwar noir films, The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame. Set in a fictional American town, it tells the story of a tough cop (Ford) who takes on a local crime syndicate, exposing tensions within his own corrupt police department as well as insecurities and hypocrisies of domestic life in the 1950s. Filled with atmosphere, fascinating female characters, and a jolting – yet not gratuitous – degree of violence, The Big Heat, through its subtly expressive technique and resistance to formulaic denouement, manages to be both stylized and brutally realistic, a signature of its director Fritz Lang.”
A riveting tale of individuals scarred – psychically in one tragic moment, physically in another iconic moment – by the rot of brazen corruption in their world and the scorched-earth efforts taken to achieve a fragile measure of justice, the film was described by Lang in this fashion to Peter Bogdanovich in the latter’s 1997 Who the Devil Made It: “The Big Heat is an accusation against crime. But it involves people – unlike other good pictures against crime, which only involve gangsters. In The Big Heat – which, by the way, was written (after William McGivern’s book) by an extremely good crime reporter, Sydney Boehm – Glenn Ford is a member of the police department and his wife gets killed. The story becomes a personal affair between him and crime. He becomes the audience.” Perhaps that’s why this powerful film leaves its mark, or scar, on all who watch it, such as The Story of Cinema historian David Shipman, who considered it “a superb thriller, looking more intently at the roots of crime than any other film of the time.” The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, not usually a fan of dark subject matter, noted: “The only concern of the filmmakers is a tense and eventful crime show, and this they deliver in a fashion that keeps you tingling like a frequently struck gong. Thanks to Mr. Lang's vivid direction, you grunt when Mr. Ford throws a punch. You wince when a cretin-faced Lee Marvin flings scalding coffee into Gloria Grahame's eyes. It isn’t a pretty picture. But for those who like violence, it's fun. Mr. Ford is in fine style as the hero – as angry and icy as they come – and Miss Grahame is intriguingly casual as the renegade girlfriend of a crook. Mr. Marvin and Alexander Scourby represent the criminal elements graphically, Miss [Jocelyn] Brando makes a briefly cozy housewife and Jeanette Nolan plays the [suicide victim police commissioner’s] widow viciously. But, then, this should not be surprising. Mr. Lang can direct a film. He has put his mind to it, in this instance, and he has brought forth a hot one with a sting.”
For those plumbing its trenchant depths, like Film Noir: The Encyclopedia essayist Eileen McGarry, there’s more to unpack: “At one level, Bannion [Ford’s detective] is the avenging angel and must be admired: his vendetta puts in motion the elements that finally bring down the title’s ‘big heat’ upon the criminal syndicate and its lackeys. The cost of this ‘heroic’ action however is the lives of four women, the loss of Bannion’s home, and his daughter traumatized by fear and grief. While women are to be protected like cherished property by normal civilization, the film noir shows how society considers them expendable when power, moral principles, or male egos are at stake.” It all becomes rather unsettling when you mentally weigh whether it’s describing a black-and-white 1953 or a multi-colored, media-saturated 2018. Guide for the Film Fanatic’s Danny Peary senses this masterwork’s grim duality: “While it coolly surveys the all-inclusive political/police corruption, it is equally concerned with the corruption of a decent man’s soul; among other noir elements are pervading pessimism, ferocious violence, a hero who makes one vital mistake from which there is little chance of recovery – he underestimates his opposition as much as they do him – and the intertwining traits of fatalism and paranoia. Lang sets up his usual bottomless pit over which his men must walk a tightrope. Only by tempering his violence does Ford avoid his downfall, fate’s final trap. Briskly paced, moodily photographed by Charles B. Lang,…it is a truly exciting, political film, brimming with clever twists, sparkling touches, offbeat characters and even scenes of genuine tenderness.” With a gripping commentary by Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and video appreciations by directors Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, the best description of this stunning classic on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray is its own unique title. Find The Big Heat here: https://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30898/THE-BIG-HEAT-1953-ENCORE-EDITION/.