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As Romantic As Handcuffs: Repressed Desire in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat

Film noir is one of those curious film movements that is both uniquely American but somehow also thoroughly European. Made up of the creative talents of European expatriates and shaped by the response of European critics to American films, film noir was the lovechild of the Hollywood studio system and emigre directors: figures like Josef von Sternberg, Edward Dmytryk, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Michael Curtiz, and, above all, Fritz Lang. A foundational figure of German expressionism, Lang both influenced film noir with his classics from the ‘20s and ‘30s like Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and his two Dr. Mabuse films, and then helped develop film noir from the inside, as a working director. One of his crowning achievements in that field is the gritty, grim, and strangely subversive The Big Heat (1953). Ostensibly the story of a cop’s revenge against a ruthless gangster, there is far more going on under the surface and it is a film understandably beloved to noir aficionados, but is one overdue for some new appreciation. The Big Heat has been bafflingly difficult to track down on Blu-ray, existing for several years on just a sold out and very expensive Twilight Time release. Luckily Indicator released this on Blu-ray a few months ago, putting out what is easily the definitive edition thus far and contributing to a year full of banner Lang releases thanks to companies like Kino Lorber and Masters of Cinema.

Police officer Tom Duncan kills himself, leaving his wife (Jeanette Nolan) a mysterious letter. Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in and though he first sees it as an open-and-shut case of suicide, soon comes to realize other forces are at work. Duncan’s girlfriend (Dorothy Green) claims that not only was Duncan was not ill, as his wife stated, but he owned a second home he couldn’t have afforded on an officer’s salary. She’s tortured and murdered later that night for her troubles, while Bannion is taken off the case. His persistence proves dangerous for his own young wife (Jocelyn Brando), and things come to ahead—resulting in tragedy and violence—when Bannion confronts corrupt businessman Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). A distraught Bannion vows revenge, ultimately pairing up with a battered mobster’s girlfriend, Debby (Gloria Grahame), who is looking for some vengeance of her own after her boyfriend and Lagana’s second-in-comman (Lee Marvin) mutilates her face with a pot of boiling coffee–in full view of the police commissioner and other prominent businessmen and politicians.

In the mid-’30s, Fritz Lang left behind a prominent career with Germany’s legendary Ufa studio out of necessity, but went on to equally great exploits in Hollywood. His films from 1936’s Fury through 1956’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt generally fit into four categories: social issue films like Fury, war films like Hangmen Also Die! (1943), westerns such as Rancho Notorious (1952), and the loose thriller/film noir category. This latter group perhaps represents the bulk of Lang’s films made outside Germany and of these—including beloved titles like Scarlet Street (1945) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt—The Big Heat is probably the most well known. It is one of the greatest titles of the admittedly overwhelming film noir canon, while also managing to subvert the genre; just as House By the River (1950) subverts the serial killer thriller, a subgenre Lang helped to create with M (1931).

In The Big Heat, Glenn Ford is superficially the film’s hero and protagonist, but this is really a film about violence against women and their revenge—as are many of Lang’s thrillers from this period, including The Woman in the Window (1944), Secret Beyond the Door (1947), and The Blue Gardenia (1953), not to mention Human Desire (1954), Lang’s followup to The Big Heat that marked the return of Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, albeit in very different kinds of roles. The Big Heat utterly belongs to Grahame and her downtrodden but resilient Debby, in one of Grahame’s many astounding performances. While Joan Bennett was Lang’s great muse of the ‘40s, Grahame essentially adopted this role in the ‘50s and it’s a shame they weren’t able to make more films together.

While much of the film’s abundance of violence occurs off screen—there is a suicide by gunshot, death by explosion, torture, strangulation, shootings, and more—one of the few on screen deaths is seemingly more brutal by comparison. Eventually Debby shoots the corrupt Mrs. Duncan, who must die in order for her husband’s incriminating letter, written after his suicide, to reach the public. She does this herself, aware that the act will allow Ford’s Bannion to keep his hands from getting dirty. In perhaps a clever twist on Lang’s part, much of the film’s violence involves heat: cigarette burns, boiling coffee thrown in Debby’s face, and the fiery explosion that kills Mrs. Bannion. Women, in Lang’s films, are never afraid to get involved in violence, crime, or other sordid details of human existence, and often wind up sheltering or acting in the stead of male characters (as in Man Hunt and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and have an unusual degree of agency even for film noir.

A strangely passive protagonist—as Ford was also in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946)—Bannion himself is a vortex for death and every woman he comes into contact with throughout the course of the film, except his daughter and sister-in-law, are killed. This is a reversal of the typical interplay between the tortured, isolated hero and the sexually aggressive femme fatale. While Gloria Grahame is certainly aggressive as Debby, she’s also a unique character. Grahame’s roles in The Big Heat and In a Lonely Place (1950) are both brilliant twists on the femme fatale trope. Here, she is not an insidious source of death and destruction for innocent or unwary men, but she acts as an avenging angel.

The film’s only true scene of masculine bravado continues to turn these tropes on their heads: when the police guard for Bannion’s young daughter is dismissed by a corrupt police official working in tandem with the gangsters, Bannion rushes to the apartment in a panic. But it turns out that his brother-in-law has recruited a team of bloodthirsty ex-army buddies who believe that if protecting the little girl means snuffing out a few gangsters, so much the better. This results in a moment that unexpectedly pokes fun at the film’s overall themes of violence, even if the men don’t actually see much violence.

Despite this light moment, The Big Heat is incredibly pessimistic and unsentimental—as are all Lang’s film noir titles—and strips away the mystique of a number of standard film noir roles. In addition to the subversion of the femme fatale, the gangsters, who occasionally feel glamorous in other film noir, are aggressively abusive to the women in The Big Heat. Much of this occurs or is strongly suggested on screen and several of these gangsters are openly portrayed as cowards and sycophants. Bannion is an unusual protagonist in the sense that, at least on the surface, he seems to hold himself above the law, but never actually does much more than threaten to choke a few people or successfully deliver a few solid punches.

He is also not tempted by sex or romance; Debby tells him that he’s “about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs.” He also fails to restore the domestic status quo at the end of the film, the goal of many noir titles from the period. Nearly every moment in the first half of The Big Heat is concerned with the imminent threat to domestic life, and the overall moral seems to be that violence and criminality will always win out over the family unit. Unlike some of Lang’s other thrillers where this dynamic is restored, such as The Woman in the Window or Secret Beyond the Door, Bannion doesn’t even actually get revenge for his wife’s death. In the uncomfortable final scene, he’s back at his desk at the police station and is presumably a hero in the department. His daughter is nowhere to be seen (and is not mentioned) and he tells a subordinate to “keep the coffee hot,” a reference to Debby’s ultimate revenge, before heading out on another homicide case.

Debby is one of Lang’s most unusual realizations, though the film was written by crime reporter Sidney Boehm and is based on a novel by William P. McGivern. Alongside a stellar cast, which includes Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Jeanette Nolan (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), Jocelyn Brando (sister of Marlon, Mommie Dearest), and the endearing Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family) as an unfortunate woman Vince Stone burns with a cigarette, Grahame’s Debby is nearly without equal in the annals of film noir. Many of these plots involve women plotting gruesome violence, generally the deaths of husbands or lovers, and there are a few that involve the women actually committing such violence, as in Out of the Past, Angel Face, and Leave Her to Heaven, but very few where female protagonists are allowed enough agency to defend themselves or get revenge for violence against them, let alone avenge a male protagonist.

Despite the relative sexlessness of the film, Grahame’s irrepressible sensuality is apparent in every scene that she’s on screen, even when hospitalized or with her face heavily bandaged. The titular “big heat,” in this case, is not a burning sexual passion that sets events in motion—as in so many film noir titles, such as something like Lang’s follow up, Human Desire (itself essentially a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1938 film La bête humaine)—but it’s the literal violence by fire peppered throughout the film, the latent rage simmering beneath Bannion’s collected, reasonable surface, a rage never quite exorcised on screen and always tempered by domestic civility, to his obvious detriment. Lang’s ultimate statement on bourgeois life is particularly scathing and is an essential part of the cumulative thesis presented by his noir titles of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Indicator, as always, have done a fantastic job with this release, particularly where the special features are concerned. In addition to a nearly 40-page booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny, an interview with Lang, and much more, there’s a packed commentary track from Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, and several featurettes on Lang from Tony Rayns, Martin Scorsese, and Michael Mann, among other worthwhile extras. That makes this a great place to begin if you’re not familiar with Lang’s American films or his film noir titles and is thus far one of my favorite releases of the year, though I am, of course, a rabid Lang fan, so I might be a little biased.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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