Stars – Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando Alexander Scourby
Director – Fritz Lang
Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Twilight Time’s Encore presentation of The Big Heat is the same solid transfer as the first time out. The differences are in the cover and the extras. The artwork on the case features that cool graphic of the pot of simmering coffee which is such an iconic image for anyone who has seen the film. There is a commentary track with the Twilight crew – Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman. Also included are two roughly ten minute shorts with Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese.
When Film Noir entered the fifties it changed. Gone was trenchcoat, the snappy dialogue and the slick look. The good guys had more than a shade of gray. Some of them did things that were unforgivable. The bad guys and gals could have more than that single streak of goodness running through them. Not only did this new characterization get cloudy but there was also a new realm of brutality. Characters didn’t hold their stomach grimace and fall to the floor to utter some famous last words anymore. The level of violence and sadism had escalated. When the new psychological trappings that were so popular then made their way into the neighborhood where Film Noir lived they fit in with the tortured leading men who could no longer be considered simple heroes. Fritz Lang had been making films in America for quite some time by 1953 when he did The Big Heat. Lang had fled Nazi Germany packing so much psychological baggage, talent and attitude that he fit right in. His film M with Peter Lorre as the child murderer set up much of the look of Film Noir. The contrasted shadowy style had become very popular. But now, now he could revel in the complex and twisted characters that populated some of the more lurid fifties films. Many consider his film Scarlet Street (1945) with Edward G. Robinson to be his best. That was one of the most desolate tales of a man swirling helplessly in a whirpool of lust and cruel fate. The Big Heat is one that others claim to be his best. Collectors are very fortunate that such quality Blu-Ray editions have come out recently on both titles.
Glenn Ford plays tough cop, Sergeant Dave Bannion. He works homicide cases and everything is clear. He catches a case of an obvious suicide by a high-ranking police officer. He consoles the widow and goes home to his loving wife. She drinks out of his glass of scotch, takes drags from his cigarette and even will split a beer with him. They’ve got an adorable little girl. The case starts to get complicated. It’s not a suicide. Dave gets chewed out by his superiors for looking too far into it. He keeps pushing it; he’s that kind of cop. We see Lee Marvin very briefly as the right hand of the big boss Lagana played by Alexander Scourby. Lang wisely keeps Marvin on ice till later on in the picture. This was Marvin’s first big role after a few westerns. The build up is worth it.
The investigation moves on and as Bannion keeps pushing it his wife gets a threatening call at home. Bannion comes home, tries to help his kid build a tower of building block but instead topples the whole thing to the ground. Shortly thereafter the film takes a drastic turn. Bannion’s wife is killed, blown up in his car in an explosion that was meant for him. Bannion is thrown off the case and even thrown off the police force in a pre-Dirty Harry moment where he throws his badge on the police commissioner’s desk yet keeps his gun. “It’s mine, bought it with my own money.” He leaves his kid with relatives and literally empties his house out. Now the shackles are off. He has loosened the reins of a civilized family man and is no longer governed by the rules that a cop must play by. Bannion is now a primal force out for revenge.
No one Bannion talks to tells the truth. Everyone lies. The bartender at The Retreat played wonderfully by Sid Clute even picks up the phone to brag to his boss about it. The only ones who help Ford along the way are broken women. An older crippled woman who works in a dirty garage hobbles out to talk with him through a chain link fence after he leaves. She can barely stand. She can barely talk and yet she feels compelled to do the right thing. The first time Ford meets Marvin he is grinding his cigarette out on the hand of an unfortunate lady. They are up in each others’ faces but each cools off and leaves. Gloria Grahame runs after Ford on the street. She goes back to his hotel room but he think she is just using him to piss off Marvin. He’s right but she senses something. It’s interesting that both Ford and Graham mouth off to their respective bosses and know the real score beneath the surface. She risks everything to help him. She’s an emotional wreck who admits she’ll put up with an awful lot of abuse to get the good times a gangster like Lee Marvin can show her. “ I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.”
Everyone we see is always grabbing things, fidgeting with their hands. People grab handfuls of peanuts at the bar. They constantly light and stub out cigarettes. The guy in the garage that Bannion interviews is busy slurping soda out of a pop bottle with a straw. As Bannion leaves he grabs another one and we notice he’s got several empties on his desk. So many ashtrays are crammed with piles of buts. When we first meet Gloria Graham she’s making a cocktail. Not one, but a whole pitcher. This just adds to the level of nervousness that builds. The investigation throttles to its crescendo and hinges on an invitation to murder. In a wicked but of true Film Noir style, it becomes clear that in order to bring justice to the criminals like Lagana and Lee Marvin someone must die. The scales of justice will only swing right again if someone will commit the absolute sin.
Glenn Ford seems to get tagged with the straight arrow all the time and yet he plays this part very well. Lee Marvin arrives here as a force of nature to be reckoned with. He seems to play his scenes as if he could care less. He has a natural swagger. Marvin can also seem so sloppy and lazy that you’re not sure if it is an act or not. The man can build to an explosion like few others and always feels like a threat on screen. He is such a menace you can’t take your eyes off him. The real turn here though is done by Gloria Grahame’s character Debby. She’s much smarter than the typical B girls she masquerades as. She knows the score and at any given moment is the smartest person in the room. Grahame pulls all this off and covers it with a shawl of smoldering sexuality. She is gorgeous and has a neat trick of always turning to give you her best side, her best look. She gives a line to a crooked cop’s even more crooked wife, “We’re sisters under the mink” that sticks like a poison dart with it’s truthfulness. Her performance here is totally captivating. She owns every scene she is in. She also brings Glenn Ford to a boil that looks very real indeed.
Lastly the violence in this film was something that Lang had flirted with but nothing before had come this far. The sadistic transgressions were shocking at the time and will still get you if you don’t know they’re coming. Maybe they still do. The man-to-man fighting was brutal as expected but the way that Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone abuses women is something that goes beyond boundaries. The fact that one realizes Vince Stone does this all the time to all the women he knows makes you really root for his downfall. Fritz Lang very consciously stacked the deck and asked us, is it ok to go too far as long as the people you are doing it to deserve it. The last line in the film says there will always be jerks like Vince Stone. “Keep the coffee hot”
This is a stunning treatment of a great movie that comes with the highest of recommendations. Film Noir may be known for its stylish photography and cool snappy dialogue. Yet there are characters to be found that are so compelling particularly the ones that blur the line between good and bad. Robert Ryan played a cop in On Dangerous Ground (1951) that was so bad, so out of control that he was sent to a snow covered town far away to work on a case. Another cop that may have gone too far, at least until Ida Lupino showed him the way. That one was directed by Gloria Grahame’s husband at the time, Nicholas Ray. When you mix the good and the bad in with actors like these you get a very strong cocktail. Have a glass or just take a swig out of the bottle. Fifties Film Noir has its own kick to it and The Big Heat is an adult portion.
Video – 1.33:1 in 1080p HD, B & W.
This is a very satisfying transfer, even stunning. The grain and natural look of the print is retained however there’s a clarity and depth of detail through the 90 minute running time. Charles Lang delivers a pretty straightforward lensing that while it sports good use of shadow and contrast is not your typical Film Noir look. Instead he lingers on faces. We see how gorgeous Gloria Grahame is as she frequently gazes at her image in a mirror. We see Lee Marvin begin his slow boil and get more and more unkempt, out of control. He lets us read the angst and indecision written all over Glenn Ford’s face. He shows us people lying in close up, not batting an eyelash as they trample the truth. The faces are what stand out from this film. The publicity pictures do not reflect the quality of the Blu-
Audio – English mono track presented in DTS-HD mono. SDH subtitles in English.
This is a beautiful track. All dialogue is clear and resonant. Orchestrations are rich and full. In one of the first scenes when Mr. Lagana is woken up in his plush bed you can hear the rustle of the sheets and the adjusting of the bed frame as he moves. Even better is that classic scene where Marvin suspects Grahame of spilling info to Ford, he calls her a pig and is so out of control he can barely contain himself. He stares at her and then you can distinctly hear the coffee boiling in the pot. He hears it too and looks to the pot. There are some other subtle touches in the track that can be heard here. When Ford confronts Marvin in The Retreat bar, after he burns Carolyn Jones (Morticia Adams), right before they get face to face all the sound drops out making for a very powerful moment. One can also hear that the band in that bar is playing the catchy tune, “Put the Blame on Mame” from Ford’s well-known film, Gilda (1946).
Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score and effects track, Commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, Michael Mann on The Big Heat ,Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat,/Original theatrical trailer, Booklet essay from Julie Kirgo.
The Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese featurettes were originally done for the title when it was released on the first Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics DVD set in 2009. Both directors offer keen insights into the film and are clearly big fans, too. Mann talks about what a shocking surprise it was to see what happened to Ford’s wife the first time he saw the film. Scorsese points out how Lang presents these two tough women right at the start who are not afraid to say what they want and do what they need to get it. It’s nice to have them included.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Classic