Sunday, February 22, 2015

Noir Watch: The Big Heat (1953)

I have to assume I've annoyed you people before by talking about the 1953 Fritz Lang directed noir, The Big Heat.  But, what's not to like?  Glenn Ford as a straight-and-narrow cop pushed too far, Lee Marvin as a semi-psychotic mob heavy, Gloria Grahame as...  Gloria Grahame, really (and what more do you need?).

The title does not refer to the lady depicted on the poster

This movie smacked me over the head the first time I saw it with the odd, amoral world of the film in which cops are pragmatists when it comes to their lucrative relationship with the mob, and violence explodes randomly and terribly and with consequence.  The movie defied a lot of what we think of as norms for the 1950's, even in noir, and broke a lot of rules, but brilliant managed to do it all while staying within code.  While the violence on-screen never reaches the levels we'd get used to after the late 60's (and, for my dollar, nothing else from the period tops the bathroom-fight in The Narrow Margin for upclose brutal fisticuffs) the sheer toughness and occasional ugliness of behavior in the film crosses lines even most noir films don't run up against.  

Despite the fact the star is ostensibly Glenn Ford's Bannion and his plunge from crusading cop into the darkness of revenge, I always thought Grahame steals the show with a phenomenal character arc from high-living gun moll who isn't afraid to push the buttons of her enforcer boyfriend to... well.  I'll let y'all see the movie.  I'll say both characters have surprisingly dark sources for their motivation by the movie's halfway point.  

The movie's relationship with women, like a lot of the best noir, sees women in perhaps different roles from men, but with their own stories, with more iron than men (because they need it in place of fists and guns), and certainly in possession of more wits.  From the tearless widow of the film's opening to the clerk at the junkyard, the women play far more and more complex roles than the cops and mobsters the men play.  Quite literally, underestimating the women in The Big Heat is to do so at one's peril.

In the end, the moralizing of the movie never feels heavy handed.  Given the dirty, sold out world the squares of movie know they're living in and the deck stacked in favor of the crooks, the movie pushes Glenn Ford's Bannion to see how far he can go before stepping over the line and just becoming another triggerman.  It's not sanctimonious cop worship, but it does play to our belief we need something better, even when we know the people we elect and ask to keep the trains running are doing so with one hand in the cash till.

If you haven't seen this particular movie and you're trying out some crime or noir films, I suggest you give it a shot.  And if you're not a Gloria Grahame fan yet, it could make one out of you.

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