The Big Heat (1953) Directed by Fritz Lang. Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin (89 min).
Weirdly manic straight-arrow police detective Dave Bannion seeks justice—or is it revenge?—against the mob after a personal tragedy. His disgust and suspicions drive his inability to stomach police collusion any longer. Fritz Lang’s explosive noir adds smoking hot bad girl Gloria Grahame to Bannion’s moral crusade against feral mobster Vince Stone, a terrifying Lee Marvin. A guarantee: Marvin and a pot of scalding coffee will sear your cinematic memory. An “ exhilarating union of brooding Germanic fatalism and Wild West ass-kicking.”—Eddie Muller, Dark City.
The first time I saw this film, it was in the old pre-VCR days, when if you wanted to watch a late night movie, you stayed up until it was on. I lingered until 3:00 am, waiting for the film on the giant old console tv that I was allowed to keep up in my converted attic room. First, The I Don’t Care Girl with Mitzi Gaynor ran over time, seemingly forever. But then, The Big Heat came on, and I was riveted. I had no idea who Fritz Lang was, but this was one of the movies I watched on tv as a teenager and never forgot for its crazed intensity. And, when other girls my age carried around photos of the Monkees in their wallets, I carried one of Lee Marvin.
Fritz Lang was, of course, the brilliant director of such films as Metropolis and M in Germany. He was born December 5, 1890 in cosmopolitan Vienna, Austria. Uninterested in his schoolwork and disdaining his parents’ plan for him to become an architect, he drew and painted, idling in cafes and cabarets. He was drafted into the Austrian army during WWI and wounded. Recovering in Berlin, he did some acting and wrote short stories and screenplays, selling a few to successful director Joe May. Lang hit it off with Producer Erich Pommer, who gave him a job at his Decla studio where Lang could learn filmmaking from the inside out. He wrote and directed popular adventure films made in two parts and screened on successive evenings, including Die Spinnen (The Spiders) (1920) and Doktor Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler) (1922). His imaginative retelling of Die Niebelungen (1924) (also in two parts, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge) was based on Germanic myths and the operas by Richard Wagner. Metropolis is the prototypical science fiction film, springing seemingly out of nowhere, and it continues to be imitated…the recent City of Ember takes place virtually within the sets of Metropolis. M, the study of a child murderer which made Peter Lorre a star, is still so compelling, that when I showed it at the downtown Durham Library a couple of years ago, even the homeless guys wanted to stay and discuss it. In the early 1930s, Lang fled the Nazis, and continued his career in Hollywood, with mixed success. He made a number of film noirs, which makes perfect sense, considering how much the style owed to the Expressionism in silent and early sound German films.
The Big Heat by William P. McGivern was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in seven parts during 1952-53. Many general interest magazines printed fiction in this era, and were important story resources for Hollywood. Another possible attraction for the studio may have been the huge TV success of the police procedural, Dragnet. Screenwriter Sidney Boehm followed the novel closely while writing the screenplay. Boehm had worked as a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, a newspaper, “whose front page was a virtual abbatoir of murder most foul” (McGilligan 403). After 14 years, he landed in Hollywood, where he specialized in film noir. Although the story and even some of the dialogue in the novel made it to the screen, there were elisions made some because of the Production Code. All of the African American characters were eliminated (since the inclusion of black actors signaled that it was a “social problem” film, and not a thriller) and the unequivocal sexual tension between Debby and Sgt. Bannion was removed. Sgt. Dave Bannion had been an intellectual fellow in the novel; “ I read philosophy, he thought, because I’m too weak to stand up against the miser and meaningless heartbreak I run into every day on the job…The gentle philosophers, the ones who thought it was natural for man to be good, and that evil was the aberrant course, abnormal, accidental, out of line with man’s true needs and nature” (McArthur 18) but he was quickly reimagined as a more pragmatic all-American character.
Lang’s literary contributions to the script were minimal, and the tight, well-structured screenplay, Boehm’s career best, would win him an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Although not a big box office hit in America, on the world cinema stage it was greatly admired. Future directors Francois Truffaut and Lindsay Anderson, in the film journals for which they wrote, praised The Big Heat as one of Lang’s greatest films. The director simply liked the character of Debby, played by Gloria Grahame. His biographer says he had a “special affection for tramps and hookers” (McGilligan 405) and the warmth with which he portrayed her is central to the film. “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” (McGilligan 407).
Lang was strictly a director for hire in this late phase of his career. He had been suffering from the communist witch hunting black list, not overtly, but with a lack of assignments. He was financially desperate when Harry Cohn, Columbia’s volatile head of production, offered him the job. There was a 28 day shooting schedule. The Big Heat was fairly low on the studio’s list of priorities. Columbia’s big picture of 1953 was From Here to Eternity, and that is where publicity and other resources were directed. Lang collaborated closely with the art director Robert Peterson and director of photography Charles Lang, Jr. Peterson and Charles Lang (no relation) were both impressed by the amount of preparation Fritz Lang brought to the set. The script had been analyzed shot by shot (the better for the film to unspool as much as possible from the point of view of the protagonist) and Lang noted camera angles in the margins, and more detailed diagrams were penciled in the back. This collaboration also emphasized the contrast between Bannion’s drab poverty and enclosed spaces, with the brightly lit open spaces of luxurious corruption.
The cast were all Columbia contract players. Glenn Ford, although born in Quebec, specialized in playing a kind of understated, strongly American character. His family moved to Santa Monica CA for his father’s health, and became interested in acting in high school there. After some time on the stage, he was signed by a Fox talent agent, debuting in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence in 1939. Soon after, he signed with Columbia, where he would spend the next fourteen years. He married Eleanor Powell, and served in the Marines in WWII. Bette Davis asked for him to co-star in A Stolen Life after the war, reviving his career, and soon after he was cast in the iconic noir, Gilda, opposite Rita Hayworth, which remained his favorite film, in part because of his fondness for his co-star. The Big Heat is probably his best film noir, both reviving the career of its director, and bringing critical raves and box office ka-ching for Ford. Although lacking charisma, he was a reliable and sometimes subtle actor. He was introspective, and uninterested in much of a contribution from his directors. Director Lang identified with Bannion’s independence, and his refusal to accept that everyone was corrupt in what the New York Times called “a sizzling nest of vipers melodrama” (Hannsberry 245).
Gloria Grahame, who plays Debby, was at the peak of her career. She had just won an Oscar for playing Dick Powell’s flighty Southern belle wife in The Bad and the Beautiful. Gloria Grahame Hallward was born in LA, and made her stage debut at 9 years old. She was discovered in her senior class play at Hollywood High School. One reviewer wrote of her high school performance, she “had all the proper curves in all the proper places, plus a pair of legs that made the movie makers at the senior play goggle their eyes…” (Hannsberry, Girls 176). Can you imagine a review of a school play like that these days? She did some stage work, and then was signed by MGM, where she did three months of cheesecake photos and drama lessons before her mid-40s debut. She was in the last Thin Man movie, and had a small part in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. She met her second husband, director Nicolas Ray, on A Woman’s Secret, and married him in 1948, although her sister opined Ray was “married to drinking, gambling and drugs” (ibid 179). Their marriage would fall apart while they were making In a Lonely Place. Grahame’s private life was tempestuous. She was often difficult to work with, upstaging her co stars and unable to hit her mark for the cinematographer. One frustrated DP tied a string to her waist to remind her if it was not taut, she wasn’t in focus. She was widely thought not to have shown her Oscar win proper respect, by refusing to grant interviews, and letting her son play with it. Her longest marriage was not to Ray, but to his son from another marriage, Tony Ray, who was 20 when she married him. She died of breast cancer in 1981, while rehearsing a stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Her sulky sex appeal set her apart from rafts of blonde ingénues. “It wasn’t a way I looked at a man, but the thought behind it,” (ibid 186).
The Big Heat was probably her best film, certainly better than the role for which she won her Oscar. Director Lang was a famous control freak, and it made him crazy that she never did a take the same way twice. Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s sister) who played Glenn Ford’s wife said that while he made her do a simple shot 25 times, he reserved his special disdain for Grahame, wrangling even over the way she applied her lipstick. Glenn Ford helped her through the director’s tantrums. She appreciated the fantastic character she played, however, telling Silver Screen, “I dote on death scenes, or any tipe of Spillane type man handling, because it is those scenes which linger in an audience’s memory. I don’t want to be typed as a woman with a face nice enough to look at, but I am interested in roles that sometimes turn a cinemagoer away in horror. So, I didn’t mind having my face horribly scarred because my gangster boyfriend threw a pot of boiling coffee over me. Being glamorous in movie roles all the time is not only artificial, but horribly monotonous (ibid 183-4). Her biographer, Vincent Curcio wrote of Debby, “the combination of humor, sensuality, vulnerability and steely deliberation with which she plays it are absolutely perfect. If she had done no other fine work, and she did, this alone would be sufficient for her reputation to outlast her time” (Curcio 154).
Lee Marvin was born in New York City, the son of an ad executive and a fashion writer. A rebellious student, he was kicked out of many schools, and ended up enlisting in the the Marines in WW II. He was wounded in the battle of Saipan in the Phillipines, when he was shot in the buttocks, and his sciatic nerve was severed. Considered disabled, he was working as a plumber’s assistant after the war, he was fixing a toilet in a theater when asked to replace an ailing bit actor in a summer stock rehearsal. He was so smitten by a love for acting, that he continued appearing in stock and on Broadway. A tiny part in Henry Hathaway’s You’re In the Navy Now was padded when the director took a shine to him. The Big Heat was his 14th film, and the one that really broke out and typecast him throughout the 50s, as he played a series of swaggering and thuggish villains in films like The Wild One with Marlon Brando in and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Lang saw his potential, and his role as Vince Stone “was more than just another role; it became his calling card” (Lentz 33). His character’s uncontrollable temper ramps up the menace and havoc in The Big Heat, and Marvin would work steadily over the next decade based on the critical response to this performance. Ten years later, he won an Oscar for his comedy role in Cat Ballou, which was almost like a lifetime achievement award. He continued as a top box office star in the anti-hero mold in films like The Dirty Dozen, The Professionals and Point Blank. He made legal headlines in 1979, when his long term live-in girlfriend sued him for “palimony” before his death from a heart attack in 1987.
Lang “liked a certain evil in the quality of the character” of Vince, Debby’s gangster boyfriend. In the central scene, in which Vince throws a pot of boiling coffee in Debby’s face, “It is not the spectacle of scalded, ruined beauty, but the evil of Marvin’s face and lips, glistening and quivering in Lang’s close-up of him, that gives realistic horror to the scene” (McGilligan 405). The packed audience at the NC Museum of Art screening, already on edge because of the unexpected violence in the film, gasped at the closeup of the boiling coffee, anticipating havoc.
Francois Truffaut’s enthusiasm had for the film, “Ah yes, we should love Fritz Lang. Toast the premiere of each new film, rush to see it, return again and again” (Ballinger 60) hinted at the beginning of his canonization as one of cinema’s great auteurs. The Big Heat’s reputation continues because its cynicism, and the way there is a fine line between good and evil, was ahead of its time. Lang’s analysis of the film’s power was quite straightforward. “Deep down…in every human being is the desire that good shall conquer evil” (Ott 246).
(Soureces include: Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang in America by Peter Bogdanovich, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Suicide Blonde by Vincent Curcio, Rough Guide to Film Noir by Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon, The Films of Fritz Lang, by Frederick W. Ott, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Lee Marvin: His Films and Career by Robert J. Lentz, The Big Heat by Colin McArthur (A BFI film guide).