BR: Big Heat, The (1953)

August 17, 2012 | By

 

BigHeat_EncoreEdition_BRFilm: Excellent

BR Transfer: Excellent

BR Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: February 16, 2016

Genre: Film Noir / Crime

Synopsis: The life of a decent, hard-working cop is turned upside-down when he discovers a link between a local mob boss and the local police force.

Special Features: Audio commentary with producer Nick Redman, film historian Julie Kirgo, and screenwriter Lem Dobbs / Isolated Mono Music Track / 2009 Featurettes: “Michael Mann on “The Big Heat” (10:56) + Martin Scorsese on “The Big Heat” (5:46) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com. / Limited to 3000 copies

 

 

Review:

Fritz Lang’s The Beat Heat is such a perfect noir it beckons an immediate reviewing, just to reassure oneself that the brilliance of its plotting, dialogue, acting, and direction weren’t a mere mirage.

Adapted by Sydney Boehm (one of noir’s sharpest writers) from a serialized story by crime writer William P. McGivern (author of Rogue Cop and Odds Against Tomorrow), Heat is ostensibly a detective film that switches gears to a revenge film, but the chief reason the straightforward story is so compelling lies in the contrasts and ironies among its core characters.

PARTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD

 

Glenn Ford, looking older and tougher after his cocky screen persona in Gilda (1946), is initially a good cop with a fully devoted hausfrau and life partner Katie (Jocelyn Brando). He likes the way she’s is always there for emotional support after a day of shoveling human scum into jail cells, and she acts as a buffer when he’s unable to connect with daughter Joyce. Dogged by a wonky case and the sudden death of a key witness who could’ve helped sever a corrupt alliance between a former bootlegger and upper level members of the city’s judiciary and police services, Bannion’s life – already interrupted by dinnertime phone calls to identify cadavers – is virtually destroyed when his wife is killed.

His new goal, after selling the family’s pretty white picket fence house, is to set up shop in a hotel room and strategize the perfect chess game to bring down kingpin Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), right-hand man Vince (Lee Marvin), and the legion of corrupt cops who simply follow orders without questioning their acute origins.

Once Bannion’s wife is gone, the film sets up the unlikely ménage between Bannion, Vince, and moll Debby (absolutely brilliant Gloria Grahame): the cop needs her help for information, but he finds himself attracted to her state of delusion, thinking he can free her from an addiction to Vince’s money which enables her to ‘shop six days a week and rest on Sundays.’

 

END OF SPOILERS

Vince’s cruelty is initially inferred, then glimpsed in a bar when he almost breaks the hand of a card shark moll (Carolyn Jones, fresh from House of Wax), but his pure mean streak is showcased in the film’s most vicious moment – spraying Debby’s face with a pot of boiling hot coffee – and sets him up for an inevitable fall, now that his unlikely confidant is armed with full knowledge of his crimes, and seething with revenge egged on by a conniving Bannion.

With the exception of Bannion’s wife – too pure and too much of an ideal creature to survive in the film’s grim world – all the women in Heat are cleverly manipulative: Debby follows orders but makes derogatory gestures, and dolls out hysterical insults at Vince with virtual impunity; whereas Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), widow of a corrupt bureaucrat, is able to finagle a fat pension from Lagana through blackmail.

There’s also the almost ludicrously perfect Bannion marriage which oddly feels like a precursor to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987): there are striking similarities between Det. Bannion and Det. Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in terms of their married lives, adoration of an impossible to maintain familial bliss, and the mob’s violent threats against their suburban idylls.

Boehm’s script is a marvel of construction because there’s absolutely no fat: every line refers to material that could easily have been a whole scene, yet additional backstory isn’t necessary, because by keeping scenes tight & lean, the pacing just clips along, adding information, mood, texture, and deeper psychological scars to the characters until the finale where justice is meted out not because of a moral obligation, but blatant self-interest.

Even from the opening scene, a death ignites a selfish act, and no character resists the urge to exploit a situation. It’s that mass of grey through which the characters walk which ensures major and bit parts are memorable, right down to the almost grotesque manager at a car wrecking yard, whose indifference to Bannion’s recent widower status is tempered by his own need to follow orders and preserve his own family’s security.

Perhaps what’s surprising about Lang’s direction is how well he could handle stories outside of an epic narrative when the focus was on latent, bubbling, or pressurized violence. The villains in the film aren’t all black; they’re merely opportunists with vestiges of morality after some implied but never detailed rotten past.

From Columbia’s stance, Heat was just another studio picture, as evidenced by the casting. Ford, having established a compelling tough guy persona in a string of genre outings, was merely dropped into another project with high-level pedigree, including director Lang, and more interestingly co-star Scourby, whom Columbia had recently paired (again as a villain) in the patchwork noir Affair in Trinidad (1952) with Rita Hayworth. (There’s also the sense Lagana’s stately home was repurposed from the mansion set used in Trinidad, as well as the casino in Gilda).

Twilight Time’s prior 2012 Blu-ray featured a crisp transfer of the film with both a mono sound mix and a bonus isolated score track with music by Daniele Amfitheatrof, Arthur Morton, and Henry Vars.

For their 2016 Encore Edition (undoubtedly commissioned to temper fans who missed out on the prior limited Blu), TT has Nick Redman playing largely silent moderator in a commentary track where historian Julie Kirgo and screenwriter Lem Dobbs seem to engage in a match of Why I Think This Film Is Perfect – which it is. Whereas Kirgo feels Heat is Lang’s best film, Dobbs cites it (perhaps more correctly) as his best American film, with M (1931) certainly at the pinnacle of his German period, and Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and Spies (1928) as Lang’s best pulp action thrillers about world dominating madmen.

Regardless of with whom you ally, the trio fills the track with loads of contrasts and contextual facts, and what certainly dominates is an agreement of Heat being initially dismissed as a meh studio programmer directed by Lang, and aging over the decades into one of the best film noirs ever crafted. Dobbs says the film as extremely faithful to the book’s plotting and dialogue, and although Lang was often characterized as a marionette director, there’s little doubt every movement within each frame was carefully mapped out to the benefit of the film – a technique Dobbs pegs as almost obsessive in mathematical arrangement.

Heat’s final shoot-out features physical movements, angles, and cuts that reflect a sense of geometric organization not dissimilar to Battleship Potemkin (1925), but whereas Sergei Eisenstein seemed obsessed with angles whose contents were geometrically arranged to force audience eyes to specific areas within the frame for the following edit, Lang sometimes forced his actors to move like mechanical dancers, grabbing props in unique gestures that add momentum to a shot, and create a kind of pre-wipe effect. It’s an idiosyncratic approach evidenced in the rug removal scene in Man Hunt (1941) when Roddy McDowall uncovers a trap door so Walter Pidgeon can escape to the dock.

Also new to the Encore Edition are two reflections on the film by directors Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Cape Fear), both produced for Sony’s 2009 Film Noir Classics I DVD set that featured The Big Heat, 5 Against the House (1955), The Lineup (1958), Murder by Contract (1958), and The Sniper (1952). The two directors articulate very distinct views of Lang’s film, with Scorsese branding the film’s look as flat and objective, augmenting its cold critique of America; and Mann branding it as an authentic film noir, and a production that reflects America’s post-WWII socio-economic makeup.

The included booklet contains a fine mini-essay by Julie Kirgo who points out Ford’s gift in playing tormented men (of which the apex is probably Ransom!) and the sly connective dialogue and strategically placed props that pepper the film. The booklet, graced with a striking cover shot, is punctuated by a reproduction of the original poster campaign which dramatizes a non-existent event and non-existent brunette moll in the film – a classic in bullshit studio publicity.

Boehm’s other scripts include Union Station (1950), Violent Saturday (1955), Woman Obsessed (1959) and the sci-fi classic When Worlds Collide (1951). Lang’s remaining crime classics include Human Desire (1954) with Grahame, While the City Sleeps (1956), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), and his final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).

Tidbit of trivia A: if the portrait of Lagana’s mother that graces his mansion looks a week bit familiar, the aged matriarch in question is apparently modeled after actress Celia Lovsky, best known as T’Pau in the Star Trek episode “amok Time” (1967).

Tidbit of trivia B: the basement bar which Bannion revisits at one point has the background jukebox playing “Put the Blame on Mame” – a cute in-joke to the bawdy dance number that sends Ford’s thuggish character in Gilda into a rage.

 

 

© 2012; revised and expaded 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

IMDB Composer Filmography

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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