Noirvember Day Three: Gloria Brings The Big Heat
Perhaps the definitive film noir bad girl, Gloria Grahame was once described as “sexy in a strange way. Like a woman who’s begging you to wallop her in the mouth, ‘cause she’d just love it.” With her expressive eyes and sulky countenance, she possessed an on-screen presence that almost always suggested more than a passing acquaintance with the wrong side of the tracks. An Academy Award nominee after only four years in Hollywood, and an Oscar winner for The Bad and the Beautiful, Grahame added a formidable contribution to almost every picture in which she appeared, and was a striking addition to seven films noirs, including Crossfire (1947), In a Lonely Place (1950), and Sudden Fear (1952).
But my favorite Gloria Grahame noir was The Big Heat (1953), which starred Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin. Described by one critic as a “sizzling nest of vipers melodrama,” this fast-paced picture begins with the suicide of a New York police officer, Lt. Duncan. Retrieving a letter penned by Duncan to the district attorney, his wife (Jeanette Nolan) immediately contacts Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), a notorious gangster. Meanwhile, when police detective Dave Bannion (Ford) uncovers evidence that may link Lagana to the policeman’s death, a bomb is planted in Bannion’s car, killing his wife. Distraught over his wife’s death and believing that the police commissioner himself has ties to Lagana, Bannion quits the force and begins a one-man vendetta to find his wife’s killer. His primary suspect is Lagana’s top henchman, Vince Stone (Marvin), whose girlfriend, Debby (Grahame), is a fun-loving, outspoken coquette whose chief personality trait is her habit of admiring herself in the mirror. After encountering Bannion in a local bar, Debby invites herself to his hotel room for a drink, where she reveals her reasons for staying with the sadistic, brutish Vince: “Most times it’s a lot of fun – expensive fun. You gotta take the bad with the good. 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.”
Wrongly suspecting Debby of revealing vital information to Bannion, Vince attacks her when she comes home and, in one of film noir’s most memorable scenes, throws a pot of scalding coffee in her face. After being treated at a hospital, Debby returns to Bannion, giving him details about the deaths of the policeman and Bannion’s wife. It turns out that the key to the investigation is Mrs. Duncan, the dead policeman’s widow, who is using her husband’s letter to the district attorney in order to extort money from Lagana. When Bannion is unsuccessful in getting Mrs. Duncan to confess, Debby goes to the woman’s home and shoots her, knowing that with her death, “the big heat will fall” and Lagana will be exposed. Next, Debby goes to the home of Vince and, as he enters, she throws coffee in his face. “It’ll burn a long time, Vince. It doesn’t look bad now. But in the morning, your face will look like mine,” Debby says, snatching off her bandage to reveal the damaged skin beneath. “Look at it. It isn’t pretty, is it?” When Debby reveals that she has killed Mrs. Duncan (“The lid is off the garbage can,” she taunts), Vince shoots her. Seconds later, Bannion arrives, and after a gun battle, Vince is captured. After the arrest, Bannion comforts Debby as she breathes her last. “I don’t want to die,” she says, covering the scarred side of her face with her mink coat. “Vince shouldn’t have ruined my looks. It was a rotten thing to do.”
Praised in Newsweek for her “highly effective performance” in The Big Heat, Grahame herself would later discuss her role in Silver Screen magazine: “If I had a title . . . Perhaps I should be called Miss Obituary of 1953, or any other year,” she said. “Seriously, though, I dote on death scenes, or any kind of Spillane-type manhandling, 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 cinema-goer 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.”
Amen, Gloria. Amen.
Join me tomorrow for Day Four of Noirvember!