Things I Love About The Big Heat (1953)

Our film begins.

I find it hard to believe that, as much as I love The Big Heat, and as many times as I’ve seen it this year alone, I’ve yet to write about it (except to fittingly include it in my list of top 10 films noir). This great movie aired again recently on Turner Classic Movies and, as usual, I was unable to tear myself away from the screen. As I watched the credits roll, I determined that, before another day went by, I was going to put pen to paper (or, finger to keyboard, as the case may be) and try to figure why I’m so wild about this movie. Here goes . . .

It’s directed by Fritz Lang. That’s always a pretty hefty clue that the film you’re about to see is a winner. After all, he helmed such noir gems as Scarlet Street (1945), Clash By Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), Human Desire (1954), and While the City Sleeps (1956). No reason to think that The Big Heat wouldn’t be another feather in Lang’s cinematic noir cap. And, boy, is it.

The opening of the film. The first thing we see is a gun on a desk, then a disembodied hand picking up the gun and removing it from our view. Then we hear a single gunshot, and a man falls face-forward, dead, into the frame. Now that’s the way to open a film noir!

Even with hands around her neck, Bertha Duncan is calm, confident, and in control.

Jeannette Nolan, who plays Bertha Duncan, the widow of the man – a cop – who knocks himself off in the opening reel. I haven’t seen Nolan in much – in fact, I can only remember her appearance in the “Jess-Belle” episode of The Twilight Zone, and she was one of three performers to contribute to the voice of “Norma Bates,” the mother in Psycho (1960). (Incidentally, Nolan’s husband of 56 years, John McIntire – whose name you may not recognize, but whose face is probably very familiar – played the sheriff in Psycho.) But in The Big Heat, Nolan is a wonder. Her Bertha Duncan is shrewd, intelligent, steely, and fearless – in one scene, she’s playing the heartbroken widow to the hilt, complete with tremulous voice, gulping sobs, and carefully manufactured tears; in another, she’s coolly informing the tenacious detective, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), that “the coming years are going to be just fine,” and that she “doesn’t threaten easily.” Nolan is infinitely watchable – she steals every scene she’s in (except, arguably, the one she shares with Gloria Grahame).

Katie and Dave Bannion: Noir's best couple.

The relationship between Dave Bannion and his wife. If there is a better depiction of marriage in all of film noir, I can’t think of what it could be. Dave and his wife, Katie (played by Marlon Brando’s older sister, Jocelyn), are loving without being annoying; devoted, but not blind to each other’s flaws. They were like two parts of a whole, demonstrating a sense of affable closeness, mutual support, equality and respect. It’s the kind of marriage you wish you had.

The total badass-ness of Dave Bannion. Here’s just one example: when an anonymous caller phones Bannion’s home, insulting his wife and warning him off the Duncan case, he doesn’t miss a beat – he heads straight for the home of mob chieftain Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). Once there, he shows no fear and doesn’t bite his tongue, calling Lagana a “hoodlum,” his underlings “thieving cockroaches,” and knocking Lagana’s bodyguard off his feet with a sweet move that the ineffectual guard never sees coming. With a grim, unsmiling countenance, Bannion never raises his voice but manages to infuse it with indisputable menace.  (I also love the way he spits out the term “thief” to describe the lowest of the low.)

Debby Marsh and one of her favorite companions: her reflection.

Gloria Grahame. Even considering some of her best films, including Crossfire (1947) and In a Lonely Place (1950), her portrayal of Debby Marsh is my favorite. From the start, Debby is seen as a good-time girl, enjoying the cushy life supplied by the ill-gotten gains of her gangster boyfriend, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin, in the first great role of his long career), and keeping herself amused by drinking, admiring her reflection and poking fun at Vince’s lapdog loyalty to Mike Lagana.  By the film’s end, though, she exhibits a previously unimagined and multifaceted depth – a capacity for sentimental tenderness, coupled with a sense of courage and vengeful justice. And in a film filled with great lines, Debby’s are the greatest. When Vince admires her perfume, she tells him that it’s new: “It attracts mosquitoes and repels men.” Later, entering the sparsely furnished hotel room where Bannion lives, she comments, “Hey, I like this: early nothing.” After Bannion rejects her overtures, she grouses, “You’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs.” And when Bannion questions why she stays with the sometimes-abusive Vince, she explains, “Clothes, travel, expensive excitement – what’s wrong with that? The main thing is to have the money. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.”

The scene where Vince Stone burns a bargirl’s (played by Carolyn Jones) hand with his cigar for a minor offense involving a dice game. After he’s confronted by Bannion, Vince solicitously peels off a few bills and hands them to the sobbing girl: “This is for you. Get yourself something nice. No hard feelings, huh?” (What a guy.)

Fritz Lang's direction makes you think you've seen everything, when in fact, you haven't.

In one of film noir’s most iconic scenes, Vince’s nasty streak is revealed again when he throws a pot of hot coffee into Debby’s face.  Fritz Lang handles this violent scene with mastery, first showing Vince’s face as he searches the room for an instrument to punish Debby for lying to him. The camera then zooms in on the glass coffeepot, steaming on a hot plate nearby. We see Vince’s hand pick up the pot, and while the focus remains on the heated coils of the hot plate, we hear the splashing sound of the coffee, followed by Debby’s agonized screams. I’ve seen this scene countless times, and still sometimes find myself holding my breath until it ends.

In-jokes. I’ve heard that there are others, but I’ve spotted only one: as Bannion exits a bar after confronting Vince Stone, he’s accompanied by the tune “Put the Blame on Mame” – a nod to Ford’s appearance with Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946).

The meeting of the film’s two most fascinating characters: Bertha Duncan and Debby Marsh, the “sisters under the mink,” as Debby labels them. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that the ending of this brief scene still holds as much shock value for me as it did the first time I saw it.

What goes around, comes around.

Debby’s revenge on Vince. Or, turnabout is fair play. Enough said.

And, finally, the lines. My latest favorite is this one, from Mike Lagana: “Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.”

So there you have it. The many reasons why I love The Big Heat and simply cannot get enough of it. Until this year, I never really thought of it as one of my favorite films noirs, but it has moved up my list with each viewing. If you’ve never seen it, you simply must. And if you have, give yourself a treat and watch it again.

You only owe it to yourself.

~ by shadowsandsatin on October 10, 2011.

5 Responses to “Things I Love About The Big Heat (1953)”

  1. Great review. Spot on. It’s funny, though, how it’s sometimes hardest to write about the things we love the most. But you did a good job. That “dummies’ quote is, in my estimation, the top film noir quote of all time.

    • Thank you so much, Ian! When I saw The Big Heat (yet again) yesterday, I honestly thought that I’d surely written about it before, and actually checked the blog not once, but twice, before I realized I hadn’t. I was pleased, though, that it gave me a valid reason to watch The Big Heat again! I love the dummies quote, too — and the way Alexander Scourby delivers it.

  2. Karen,

    A terrific article on this fantastic film. I completely ignored Jeannette Nolan’s performance in my review but you point out some fine points. How controlled she is even where Ford has his hand around her throat. as for the marriage while I said in my own article that I found it too sugary, it is great contrast showing how far Ford goes in his determination to get the killers responsible for his loving wife. And you’re right; it is the kind or marriage everyone would want. They do come off as loving and respecting each other. Your other points are all on target, Grahame is the queen of noir, and Lee Marvin is disgustingly evil. Thanks for letting me known about this article. I will be checking out some of your other stuff and adding your blog on to my sidebar.

    • Thank you so much for visiting, John, and for adding my blog to your sidebar (I added yours as soon as I saw all of your great noir posts!). One more thing about the marriage in The Big Heat — what I really meant is that it’s the kind of marriage I would want! (Kinda like Rob and Laura Petrie, LOL) Thanks for your comments! : )

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