Go see it. The more you read about this one, the more it may spoil the film. Reasons to see it inevitably give things away…
Right. So it’s no secret that The Big Heat is one of the film noir greats, albeit often found a little off the main boulevard. I’ve no idea why. Quite a few of the better-known classics can be overly hard-boiled and a bit of a parody of themselves. Not that The Big Heat couldn’t be seen in this way too – it’s that in other films there isn’t that sense of menace, of peril. The heroes are too cool to be concerned about much other than their next snappy line. The Big Heat is a very raw, visceral film. It grabs you by the throat like Sunset Boulevard and the pressure hardly ever eases until the film is over.
Visceral. There’s no blood spilled but there’s a terrible brutality to the action. People get hurt; they feel pain; it destroys their lives. There’s nothing glorious about it. Every action has consequences and that goes for the heroes, too. That’s not to say it’s realistic. It’s easily argued that some major plot points are too facile, with characters that were written to fulfil a single purpose. Everything is perfectly executed, however, and the film’s many strengths eclipse its shortcomings to such an extent that they vanish into insignificance. Whatever cheesiness and predictability The Big Heat offers is about all the relief you’ll get over its tight ninety minutes – so be thankful for it.
The story? Glenn Ford is Dave Bannion, a detective sergeant for the Philadelphia police. While investigating a murder he starts to uncover things a local crime syndicate would prefer to remain unseen. Even though it might be easier for him to leave things be when they fall outside of his jurisdiction, he’s a man who takes pride in doing a good job, by the book. This and his family are what give him purpose. His wife is played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon Brando’s older sister. On the other side of the fence, a young Lee Marvin provides the reprehensible, thuggish, brutal villain. Lee Marvin is rarely a man to be messed with on-screen, but Vince Stone is a sadistic, cruel man whose actions may well shock pretty much anyone.
The Big Heat must be a hugely influential film – the ancestor of Dirty Harry and countless other crime dramas. There’s so much in here that you’ve probably seen a million times before. This is Fritz Lang, however, so there’s no comfort zone for the viewer as a shooting gallery of bad guys gets blown away. Again, the violence in this film is more harrowing than glorious. It’s not an annoying, preachy film but the fact that it makes you feel uncomfortable means there’s hidden depth here. Depth it doesn’t boast about and could be missed if you did enjoy the ride. Is it there? You tell me.
Lastly, and hopefully you’ve watched the film by now… The Big Heat must feature one of the greatest femmes fatales ever seen on the silver screen. This is a film that punches you in the face, punches you in the stomach, rarely gives you the chance to draw a comfortable breath. If you want to watch a film noir, you’ve come to the right place. It’s absolutely fantastic and one of the very best. Hats off to Fritz Lang and the wonderful cast.