By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
December 28, 2014
Columbia Pictures presents Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brand in “The Big Heat” with Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, based upon the Saturday Evening Post serial by William P. McGivern. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm. Produced by Robert Arthur. Directed by Fritz Lang.
Upon hearing the name of film director Fritz Lang, movie buffs these days usually think of the German expressionist silent science fiction masterpiece Metropolis from 1927. But while there is much to recommend that film, I would dare to say that it is more style over substance, and even in the more-or-less reconstructed versions that have appeared in recent years, the story is still rather incomprehensible. You come away from the film not exactly knowing what the plot was all about or even what the message was—instead, one watches Metropolis for its amazing images and for its place in cinema history as one of the crowning glories of the German expressionist style that goes back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1919.
Lang’s most enduring contribution to cinema was in creating the language of what would become film noir, first in his pre-noir films in Germany such as M (1931) and the Dr. Mabuse pictures, then later (in his American period) in actual American noir films, such as The Big Heat and Human Desire. Lang directed 23 features during his 20 years in America (from 1936-1957.) His American output has long been overlooked in favor of his famous German films. But Lang’s American work has undergone quite a re-appraisal in recent years. It took some hindsight to even recognize “film noir” as a distinct genre, as most film-makers during the peak years of American noir (from 1940-1959) did not know they were making “noir” films. They would have said that they were filming melodramas or hard-boiled detective stories. It took a loftier critical perspective after much elapsed time to categorize certain films as belonging to a genre called “film noir.” Critics argue even today about what films should be included or excluded from the category. Suffice it to say that favorable reappraisal of Lang’s American work has occurred because he is now recognized as one of the originators of the genre before the genre even existed, and then one of the great practitioners of the genre after it was in full flower but not yet recognized as a distinct genre.
Definitions are hard to come by, but for Dalenberg Library purposes, “film noir” is a type of cinema most exemplified by black & white American films of the 1940’s and 50’s, that exists at the intersection between the unique camera eye of German expressionist film-making and stories inspired by the pulp magazines and hard-boiled novels (often, but not always, detective novels) of the 1930’s to the 1950’s. That definition does not quite sum it up, however, because there is also a certain intangible feel that makes some films “noir” and others not. Usually, this is a brooding sense of moral ambiguity in the situations or characters of the story. Fritz Lang’s M, an important precursor to film noir, captures much of this ambience. The story is about a serial child molester/murderer (played by Peter Lorre, who later became a stock actor in films noir). Lorre’s character has so alerted the police to be on the watch for him that the extra police presence on the streets has cut into the livelihood of the criminal underworld, forcing the mob to mobilize to track down the pedophile. This plot, which has a criminal as the protagonist and more criminals as the ones who are trying to put a stop to him, is about as morally ambiguous as a film of the 1930’s could get; it is essentially a film where the protagonist and most of the characters are either villains or at best anti-heroes.
The Big Heat, like many of the American Fritz Lang films, has toned down the expressionist elements, but they are still there in subtle, yet powerful, ways. Probably the most expressionist visual element in the film is the half-mask that Gloria Grahame wears on the grotesquely scarred left side of her face after Lee Marvin brutally throws scalding coffee on her. The mask is a metaphor for her conflicted character with it’s pretty side and ugly side, the mask commenting on the woman herself, as we see her sell her soul to the mob, even commit murder, but still long for the idyllic middle class married life that Glenn Ford used to have (before his wife was murdered by the mob.)
Glenn Ford plays a cop who tries to go up against the city-wide crime syndicate that has corrupted the police department. But in retaliation, the bad guys murder his wife, leading him to give up his badge and go it alone in plain-clothes seeking revenge. The film is psychologically complex for the way that all the characters are foils to all the other characters. For instance, the mob boss has compartmentalized his life as an honorable businessman away from his life as a criminal, and the policeman has compartmentalized his gritty job on homicide detail away from his perfect middle class suburban existence. The dead wife and Gloria Grahame’s femme fatale are foils to each other, and the comparison/contrast between the two is a running theme. Even the gang moll (Grahame) and the policeman (Ford) are played off against each other as they both deal with murderous impulses, and one gives in to those impulses while the other holds back (lest he become as bad as the villains he is pursuing.)
More than anything else, what gives this movie its noir flavor is the deeply flawed nature of the two main characters. Glenn Ford’s policeman is fundamentally a good guy, but his flaw is his impulsiveness and poor judgment as he jeopardizes the safety of his family to go up against the boss of the crime syndicate, making him ultimately responsible for his own wife’s murder. Likewise, Grahame’s femme fatale lies to her jealous, controlling boyfriend about going to the cop’s hotel room, and her punishment (which she brings on herself) is to be disfigured by a pot of hot coffee to the face. Other films noir feature anti-heroes, reluctant heroes, villains as heroes, even heroes with few redeeming qualities, but in The Big Heat, we have heroes struggling with the consequences of their own poor decisions, navigating a minefield of ethical dilemmas. The femme fatale longs to be a good girl, but she has to become a murderess in order to be a hero. The cop wants to bring the bad guys to justice, but in the process he comes perilously close to becoming just as bad as the bad guys.
Fritz Lang was back the following year (1954) directing Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in Human Desire, a sordid potboiler noir with Ford being sucked into Grahame’s seductions and featuring Broderick Crawford in a memorable turn as her fat, abusive, jealous husband. Featuring a similar cast and different angles on film noir by a man who helped create the genre, and clocking in at 91 minutes each, The Big Heat and Human Desire are an excellent option for programming a double feature.
In 1957, Lang returned to Germany after a long absence (20 years in America) and directed his last three films, the last being The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960. Failing eyesight forced him into retirement after that, but he left a legacy of fine films that stretched all the way from 1918 to 1960. He passed away in 1976.