Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Big Heat

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) is a tough, cynical crime movie that falters only when it attempts to portray its hero's idyllic family life. Its depiction of police corruption is specific and convincing, but the scenes showing Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) at home with his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando), are a cliché.

As in M (1931), Lang equates law enforcement with organized crime. After a cop kills himself in the middle of the night, his widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), who doesn't appear the least bit upset, takes the suicide note and phones the local crime boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). He in turn calls his muscle, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who's in the middle of a card game with the police commissioner (Howard Wendell).

This sequence establishes all the major characters, including Vince's girl, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), with the exception of Sgt. Bannion. An honest cop, Bannion is out of the loop.

The suicide note is a maguffin. We never learn what's in it--only that it contains evidence incriminating Lagana, and Bertha is holding it in order to blackmail him--or even why Bertha's husband committed suicide in the first place. She tells Bannion he was worried about his health, but the man's mistress, Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), denies it. Shortly after speaking to Bannion, Lucy turns up dead.

The police department is happy to look the other way on just about anything. Lucy's death is deemed a county matter, and Bannion is told to forget about it. When he doesn't, Lagana has one of his men plant a bomb in Bannion's car. Although everyone knows who gave the order, the department has a team of men follow-up on everyone Bannion's put away in the last five years and their families so it looks like they're doing something.

The scenes showing Bannion's marriage aren't convincing. Katie is the perfect, submissive, uncomplaining housewife who lives only to cook steak for dinner and take care of their young daughter.

The film has a bare, minimal look. The sets are totally generic, as if Lang were re-using sets builts for other films. (This might account for the near-constant camera movement.) The weather is always neutral: no wind, no rain, no extreme heat or cold. And apart from the dialogue and foley--that is, sounds dictated by the story--there isn't much to listen to.

The film is famous for a scene in which Vince throws boiling coffee at Debby. This action is foreshadowed only by the off-screen sound of coffee boiling a few seconds before he throws it. The pot seems to materialize at the moment it's needed.

This is supremely confident filmmaking. (I haven't seen Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt [1956], but apparently it's even more minimal.) The content is so extreme that perhaps Lang felt no need to embellish it.

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