The Big Heat
[May 9, 1972, program note for a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, "Fritz Lang in America"]
With the possible exceptions of Scarlet Street and parts of Fury, The Big Heat is the most corrosive of Fritz Lang’s films. Its very title sounds definitive of the darkly, sometimes loathsomely brilliant film noir, a class—if not precisely a genre—of American movie to evolve in the wake of the Second World War or, more accurately, after the tide of war had turned in favor of the Allies: tortured imagings of a then-contemporary America, the high neurotic intensity of which would astound anyone who fancies the movies came of age this side of Stanley Kubrick. The film noir put out inky tendrils in many existent genres, forever altering even the Western (Anthony Mann, perhaps the most gifted director associated with the new vision, the new mode, also began his remarkable series of James Stewart Westerns in this era: Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, etc.); and certainly its temperamental affinities to the science-fiction film, a prime manifestation of the McCarthy era, are worth a nod. Basically, though, the film noir flourished in and reflected a contemporary milieu; films noirs tended to have to do with the world of crime, whether overtly (police and FBI stories, private-eye flicks, gangster stories) or by extension—that is, films in which “the world of crime” proved to be inseparable from the world of nightclubs and cabarets, offices and tenements, cars and homes where private citizens might become, by accident or design, guilty souls. The arrival of the film noir coincided with a new penchant, inspired by Italian neorealism, for moving out of the studio on occasion and onto the great rich set of the American city and its suburbs, a readily available set which became, sometimes with only minimal adjustment of light and shadow, fully as “Germanic” as anything constructed at Ufa in the Twenties. Of course many makers of films noirs were authentically Germanic: Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Killers), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd.), Otto Preminger (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends), not to mention other directors and—just as important—designers and cameramen. But the most Germanic of all, Fritz Lang, clung to the resources of the soundstage. Still, part of the reason why The Big Heat looms large even in the incomparably rich spectrum of cinema that is film noir is its recognizability as a studio re-creation (specifically, mid-Fifties Columbia, as Man Hunt represents early-Forties Fox craftsmanship at its highest). The imagined milieu of The Big Heat may look less freaky than that of that earlier Lang picture of an earlier generation, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), but its distortions are (therefore?) more subtle, its ultimate force and effect more subversive.
“The city is being strangled by a gang of thieves….” “The city” has been an allegorical battleground for Lang before in Metropolis, Spione, M; it will recur focused in a luxury hotel with a thousand one-way mirrors and camera eyes—Die tausend Augen des Doktor Mabuse. Here the alarm is sounded by an ex-policeman who, a moment later, will set his hands to strangle the woman he’s addressing. Elsewhere in the film the socially and politically eminent master criminal will stand against a starry city backdrop, a Master of Metropolis without suggestions of deity, and advise an impetuous henchman: “Never get the people steamed up—they start doing things.” He is a family man who worships the memory of his mother and dotes on his daughter, but he pushes buttons and orders others to “give contracts” on human lives. His empire is threatened by the activity of another family man, the would-be moral strangler. The moral landscape is as recognizable as the urban.
Even among Lang pictures, the grid of cross-references in The Big Heat is extraordinarily thorough, making for an intricate architecture of plot, motive, character, and theme. Rarely have so many ambiguously shaded characters been so inextricably bound together by figure of speech, gesture, behavior. A police detective shoots himself and his widow looks dry-eyed on his corpse, immediately setting into motion a plan to provide for herself by blackmailing the semi-respectable underworld kingpin he had worked for. Moments later, she sits before three mirrors, composing her public face; another detective, our protagonist-to-be, knocks at the door, and she crosses the room to assume a grieving widow pose. The camera moves with her, keeping the mirrors in the background of the shot as an index of deceit; and as Dave Bannion enters, he is reflected, fragmented, in two of them. Almost immediately, characters begin to be reflected. “Everything Tom ever did was clean and wholesome,” the new widow insists through newer tears; “that’s the kind of man he was.” The description seems readily applicable to a Glenn Ford hero, or what we expect a Glenn Ford hero to be (indeed, subsequent information, a fresh point of view from Lucy Chapman, will suggest one face of the dead policeman was admirable). Bannion is next seen at home (and, by the way, the gloppy sweetness of these home scenes represents the only significant weakness in the film, though an appreciation of the many corrosive strokes in the dialogue and occasional chilling effects like the photo of ranked, dark cops on the wall helps stave off Amfitheatrof’s treacly/twinkly music). His wife jokes about his advancement to “police commissioner”—the present incumbent proves to be on the gangsters’ payroll. They also make light of the two faces of their daughter’s behavior: “She’s angelic all day but at night she’s a holy terror”; and Bannion’s analysis of her problem—she’s “madly in love with me. That’s the conflict between you: you’re both in love with the same wonderful guy”—sets up many developments to come: a further linking of Bannion and the suicide Tom Duncan when Duncan’s lover calls him “a real wonderful guy” (“Thirty-five, Mister—pay now,” says a waiter to Dave at that point), the emphasis on Mike Lagana’s relationship with his daughter, and Bannion’s position between two “loves,” his by-then-deceased wife and Debby Marsh.
Bannion’s dinner is interrupted by a phone call that leads him to Lucy Chapman, the other woman in Duncan’s life. She is clearly terrified, but Bannion ignores this fact and most of what she says, preferring to sneer at her protestations that her relationship with Tom “wasn’t like that.” (Ironically, the breaking-up of the Duncan case and of Lagana’s empire is engendered by a sentimental error: Lucy acts because she’s certain Duncan was murdered, whereas in fact he really did commit suicide; one recalls Schirmer in Hangmen Also Die! praising the integrity of the late Inspector Gruber whom Czaka killed, he is quite sure, because Gruber wouldn’t be bribed.) He accuses Lucy of precisely what Bertha Duncan is doing, attempting “a shakedown,” to which Lucy replies, “The only difference between me and Bertha Duncan is that I work [openly] at being a B-girl….” Bannion walks out of The Retreat, leaving Lucy to her fate and receiving his first moral blemish—one he (consciously or unconsciously) acknowledges after her corpse has turned up at the morgue: “You saw those cigarette burns on her body,” the attendant asks. “Yeah, I saw them. Every single one of them.” And he savagely grinds out his own cigarette.
Hereafter Bannion’s exits and entrances are frequently shadowy. His mood grows darker as well: the grieving widow, whom he interviewed on a starkly black-and-white striped davenport and told of Lucy Chapman’s suspicions, looks more and more dubious to him, but a vast conspiracy seems to be at work to protect her; even his own friend and immediate superior has ordered him to steer clear. The stability of his home begins to crumble: he loses his temper with his wife (“You’re entitled to let off steam,” she says forgivingly, unwittingly anticipating Lagana’s own figure of speech, not to mention the violent symmetry of Vince’s and Debby’s acts of revenge), even wrecks his daughter’s house of blocks; and the mob assaults his wife by phone. In turn he invades the sanctity of Lagana’s home, less as a cop (the police protect the house!) than as a family man. “You think I live under a rock?” he demands, though he has already begun to refer to the mob in terms of a bestiary. “…talking to my wife like she was a—” The phrase is never completed, but—like a Lucy Chapman, a “barfly”? The sanctity of Bannion’s self-identity is still unbroken.
But comparisons to him proliferate. Lieutenant Wilks admits he’s not interested in Bannion’s theories, “not when they affect my job”; a moment later, Dave’s wife is reminding him how much they, like Wilks, have looked ahead to retirement, a pension. “Your big trouble, honey, is that you attack yourself from all sides, like Jersey mosquitos.” Another moment later, after saying this, she is dead in his place, destroyed by a bomb meant for him. And slimy Commissioner Higgins is urging him, as he himself urged Bertha Duncan, to get in touch if there’s “anything else we can do.”
Bannion turns in his badge, flings in Wilks’ and Higgins’ faces the disgust he feels for a world where “a payoff” means both a break in the case and a surreptitious consideration from Mike Lagana. His own world has been shattered: a baby carriage that he once moved tenderly off the front walk now sits offcenter but geometrically emphasized in a barren house, a house emptied as opposed to the never-tenanted dream-houses and dream-windows of You Only Live Once and Fury. But he rejects any other, rejects sympathy. Of Wilks he says to Gus Burke, “Tell him to stop bleeding for me—it’ll run all over his pension.” Burke seeks to persuade him: “You’ve decided people are all scared rabbits…. No man is an island. You can’t set yourself against the world.”
Bannion would set himself against the world, but Lang is ready to demonstrate there are fatal sympathies out there. Debby Marsh, introduced briefly and satirically earlier, reappears in a sort of memory shot of Katie Bannion, standing at a bar mixing drinks. Lang’s intention is swiftly confirmed when she steps into a doorway where she is not only framed but also given back in a wall mirror. Vince and Larry enter the scene, Vince going to embrace Debby while Larry looks on, the possibility of their interchangeability suggested. Debby picks up one of Katie’s last verbal images in describing the purpose of her perfume: “It attracts mosquitos and repels men.” (“Doesn’t work that way with me,” ‘Vince replies, to which she comes back with: “It’s not supposed to”; a moment later she refers to the lot of them as an animal act in a circus, with Lagana the ringmaster.) She is set up as a victim, like Katie, and like Lucy Chapman: Bannion walks out on her at The Retreat too. But it is Katie she reminds Bannion of (“Did you think I was an heiress or something before I met Vince?” she asks, recalling Katie’s advice to Dave to tell his colleagues he can eat steak because he’s married “an heiress”), and it is because of this memory as well as his still-potent sense of moral superiority that he expels her to the tender mercies of Vince Stone.
Not that Lang has stopped developing likenesses for Dave Bannion. Bannion says to Vince, after he has burned the dice girl, “You get a kick out of hurting women?” Shortly thereafter Debby stalks Dave in the street, chirping, “You get your kicks insulting people?” Bannion derives moral rearmament from calling his enemies names, especially animal names—just prior to splashing scalding coffee in Debby’s face (before a mirror), Vince scrambles for an appropriate insult and finally comes up with “You pig!” Later Dave confesses to Debby how he nearly strangled Bertha Duncan, to which she replies, “If you had, there wouldn’t be much difference between you and Vince Stone.” (Indeed, there is little difference between Bannion at this point and one of those Lucy Chapmans who “come and go like flies” with only “a suitcase full of nothing between them and the Gutter”; note Debby’s comment on his hotel room: “Hey, I like this! Early Nothing!”) And Dave uses the mob to rub each other out: as Lagana hired Vince hired Larry hired Slim, Dave signs Larry’s death warrant by spreading the word he talked. Ironically, possessed of the information obtained from Larry, he becomes to Lagana “the Duncan setup all over again,” and hence unkillable.
If M‘s Beckert the schizophrenic is the most concise of Lang’s double characters and Woman in the Window‘s Richard Wanley his most subtle psychologically, the scarred and bandaged Debby Marsh is the most ferociously visual. Precisely half her face covered with gauze, two distinct profiles to present to the world, she is one of the definitive figures in the Lang universe. Bannion keeps looking at everything but her face in their one intimate scene save the last, until his confession about wanting to kill Bertha enables him to see her and himself. As he stands at the window, his face ribbed by shadows from the venetian blind (as he was shadowed in Higgins’ office, where he resigned from the world), she sits on the other side on the screen, a pattern projected by that same window suggesting a symmetry in their relationship. Debby is about to become Bannion’s agent in assassination and unlock the whole ironic trap, but this time he will be without guilt. He leaves her a gun for protection; she decides what to do with it. It is the gun he took from Larry Gordon, Larry whom the mob obligingly murdered. As Bannion towered over Larry, that gun lay conspicuously in the corner of the frame, as Duncan’s gun lay at the beginning of the film and as it fell into the frame again at his death. Bertha Duncan comes down the steps as she came on the night of Tom’s suicide, this time to admit two-faced Debby, her “sister under the mink,” who shoots her at the same desk where her husband dies and—afer a breath-holding delay while the symmetry of the situation and the conspicuously unfilled space in the shot register with us—tosses the gun into the frame. By this time Fate itself, no mere abstract convenience in Lang, has taken over; the very form of the movie calls for and condones this completion. With the second Duncan death “the big heat falls for Lagana, for Stone, and all the rest of the lice,” the big heat which burns, torments, but—perhaps—purifies.
The Big Heat is consistently the most fluidly photographed of all Lang’s works. From the moment the camera approaches Tom Duncan’s body in the service of the curious viewer and of Bertha Duncan, who then steps into the shot, another dark shape encroaching on the Lang frame, the film is a-crawl with nervous observation. The dolly from hallway to study links the three realms of the Lagana mansion: the ballroom where the daughter’s friends jitterbug, the hallway where socially unimportant intruders are left to wait, the study where Lagana holds forth in front of medieval tapestries and under Mother’s portrait (Larry Gordon tries to swear on his mother’s grave, and the news of his demise is spoken coldly over a closeup of Mother Lagana’s approving Old World smile); and after Bannion’s counter-threats against Lagana and decking of the hired goon, he exits, offering an abrupt flash of jiving teenagers in the distance. The environment transforms with something like viscosity: the bartender Tierney is scrupulously cleaning glasses with his questionably sanitary breath when Bannion interviews him about Lucy; a later sequence at The Retreat opens with a pan down a wall, past shadows of such glasses, then murky gray glasses themselves, then their luminous counterparts on display. The light-dotted cityscape behind Mike Lagana gives way to a gray junkyard as the “steamed-up” Bannion goes to harass yet another family man, “scared rabbit” citizen Atkins who has a soft spot for crippled old ladies. Out of the shadows at Dave’s brother-in-law’s steps a visually certifiable thug (John Doucette!) with an ugly automatic at the ready—but he’s a righteous war veteran doing volunteer vigilante work helping guard Dave’s child. In such an environment personae are torn in half and Debby Marsh shrugs philosophically: “Ya gotta take the bad with the good.”
Order is apparently restored in the final scene of the film, but it would be a mistake to take the redemption of the city, the police, and Dave Bannion too complacently, or to assume that Lang does. There are fresh homicides to handle, and a conspicuous sign on the wall urges: GIVE BLOOD NOW. Lastly, there is Bannion’s final word: “Keep the coffee hot, Hugo!”—which, in the light of Debby Marsh’s agony and her savagely apt revenge, is scarcely without ambiguous associations. Lang is faithful to his characters, to their simplicities and to their complexities. [In You Only Live Once] Eddie and Joan Taylor’s fatal fascination with the naïve poetry of romantically committed frogs was touchingly consistent with their sensibilities, and Debby dies covering the corrupt side of her face with mink, sardonically remarking Vince shouldn’t have ruined her looks. As to Bannion, his refusal to shoot the fallen Vince Stone bespeaks a moral triumph, a certificate of the baptism of fire he has undergone (at others’ very literal expense) ; but there is also time to watch his realization that sparing Vince will make it harder for Vince, will allow Debby’s vengeance its full bloom. It is an admittedly grisly satisfaction. But it satisfies.
THE BIG HEAT. Columbia, 1953. Directed by Fritz Lang. Screenplay: Sydney Boehm, after a novel by William P. McGivern. Cinematography: Charles Lang Jr. Art direction: Robert Peterson. Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof. (90 minutes)
Dave Bannion: Glenn Ford; Debby Marsh: Gloria Grahame; Mike Lagana: Alexander Scourby; Vince Stone: Lee Marvin; Katie Bannion: Jocelyn Brando; Bertha Duncan: Jeanette Nolan; Larry Gordon: Adam Williams; Lieut. Wilks:Willis Bouchey; Gus Burke: Robert Burton; Commissioner Higgins: Howard Wendell; Lucy Chapman: Dorothy Green; Tierney, the bartender: Peter Whitney; The girl with the dice: Carolyn Jones; Atkins, the junk dealer: Dan Seymour; MissParker: Edith Evanson.
Copyright © 1972 by Richard T. Jameson