The Big Heat

The Big Heat

name = The Big Heat

caption = "Somebody's Going to Pay...because he forgot to kill me..."
imdb_id = 0045555
producer = Robert Arthur
director = Fritz Lang
writer = Sydney Boehm
William P. McGivern (Saturday Evening Post serial)
starring = Glenn Ford
Gloria Grahame
Lee Marvin
music = various uncredited
cinematography = Charles Lang
editing = Charles Nelson
distributor = Columbia Pictures
released = October 14, 1953 (U.S. release)
runtime = 89 min.
country = USA
language = English

"The Big Heat" is a 1953 film noir directed by Fritz Lang, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. It is about a cop who takes on the crime syndicate that controls his city after the brutal murder of his beloved wife.


Homicide detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is an honest cop who investigates the death of a fellow officer named Tom Duncan. It would seem to be an open-and-shut case, suicide brought on by depression, but Bannion is then contacted by the late cop's mistress, Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), who claims that it could not have been suicide. From her, Bannion learns that the Duncans had a second home which would not have been possible on his salary.

Bannion visits Mrs Duncan (Jeanette Nolan) and raises the subject but she resents the implication of his suspicions. The next day Bannion gets a dressing-down by Lieutenant Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) who is under pressure from "upstairs" to close the case with as little grief to the widow as possible.

Chapman is later found dead after being tortured and covered with cigarette burns. Bannion sets about investigating her murder even though it is not his case or his jurisdiction. Threatening calls are then made to his home and he goes to confront Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), the local mob boss. It's an open secret that Lagana runs the city, even to the point that he has cops guarding his house while his daughter hosts a party. Lagana resents Bannion's accusations in his own home during such an event: "I've seen some dummies in my time, but you're in a class by yourself."

Bannion finds that people are too scared to stand up to the crime syndicate, including Lieutenant Wilks, who fears for his pension and whom Bannion dismisses as a "leaning tower of jelly". When the warnings to him go unheeded, Bannion's car is blown up and his wife (Jocelyn Brando) is killed.

Feeling that the department will do little to bring the murderers to justice, and disgusted by Police Commissioner Higgins' (Howard Wendell) clichéd condolences, Bannion resigns the force and sets off on a one-man crusade to get Lagana and his second-in-command Vince Stone (Lee Marvin).

When Stone viciously "punishes" a girl in a nightclub by burning her hand with a cigarette butt, Bannion stands up to him and orders him and his bodyguard out of the joint. This impresses Stone's girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). She tries to get friendly with Bannion who keeps pointing out that she gets her money from a thief. Marsh states: "I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better." But when she unwittingly reminds him of the time he courted his late wife he sends her packing: "Well, you're about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs," she remarks.

Marsh was seen with Bannion and when she returns to Stone's penthouse, Stone accuses her of talking to Bannion about his activities and throws boiling coffee at her face. She is taken to hospital by none other than Commissioner Higgins who was playing poker with Stone and his friends at the flat. When Higgins warns that he will have to file a report, Stone reminds him that he pays him to deal with that sort of thing.

Her face half-scarred, Marsh returns to Bannion who agrees to put her up for a while. Bannion has discovered that a man called Larry hired a mechanic to set the dynamite in the car that killed his wife. Marsh tells him that it is Larry Gordon (Adam Williams), one of Stone's associates. Bannion confronts Gordon and forces him to admit to the bombing of his car. This whole thing has started because Bertha Duncan, widow of the cop who committed suicide, has papers he collected that could expose Stone and Lagana. They were really intended for the DA, but Mrs Duncan has kept them for herself and is collecting blackmail payments from Lagana.

Heeding Marsh's entreaties that killing for revenge would make him no better than those who killed his wife, Bannion refrains from killing Gordon, instead spreading the word that he talked. Gordon is seized and murdered by Stone's men before he can make his escape. Bannion now confronts Mrs Duncan, accusing her of betraying Chapman to her death and of protecting "Lagana and Stone for the sake of a soft plush life", but then cops sent by Lagana make him leave.

Stone decides to try and kidnap Bannion's little daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett) who is staying with her aunt and uncle with a police guard outside their flat. When the guard suddenly leaves, the uncle calls in a few army buddies to take over. Satisfied that she is in good hands, Bannion sets off to deal with Stone. On the way he meets Lieutenant Wilks, who is now prepared to make a stand against the mob, admitting that, in spite of his own wife's pressure over what will happen to his pension, "It's the first time in years I've breathed good clean air."

Debbie Marsh confronts Mrs Duncan. Noting that they have similar coats and have benefited from their association with mobsters, Marsh says "We're sisters under the mink". She then kills Mrs Duncan, thus starting the process that will see Tom Duncan's evidence surface and bring about Stone and Lagana's downfall. When Stone returns to his penthouse, Marsh throws boiling coffee over him just as he had done to her. Stone shoots Marsh and after a short gun battle is captured by Bannion who had followed him to the flat. As Marsh lies dying, Bannion describes his late wife to her in terms of their relationship rather than the physical "police description" he gave earlier: "You and Katie would have gotten along fine," he tells her.

Stone is arrested for Marsh's murder. When Duncan's evidence is made public Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted. Bannion returns to his job at Homicide.

Critical reaction

Critical reaction to the film was positive when it was released, and today "The Big Heat" is considered a classic. Film critic Roger Ebert lists the film among his Great Movies. In Ebert's review he praises the film's supporting actors and questions the actions of the apparently strait-laced Bannion: "Does it ever occur to him that he is at least partly responsible for their deaths? No, apparently it doesn't, and that's one reason the film is so insidiously chilling; he continues on his mission oblivious to its cost." [ ]

Writer David M. Meyer states that the film never overcomes the basic repugnance of its hero, but notes that some parts of the film, though violent, are better than the film as a whole. "Best known is Gloria Grahame's disfigurement at the hands of "über"-thug Lee Marvin, who flings hot coffee into her face." ref|book1


*Glenn Ford as Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion
*Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh
*Lee Marvin as Vince Stone
*Jeanette Nolan as Bertha Duncan
*Alexander Scourby as Mike Lagana
*Jocelyn Brando as Katie Bannion
*Adam Williams as Larry, the car bomber
*Kathryn Eames as Bannion's sister-in-law


Many of the best quotes are included in the Plot summary above. Others include:

*Examiner "(after Chapman's post-mortem)": Trouble automatically catches up with girls like her. Looks like a sex crime to me...I'd say pretty definitely it was psychopathic. You saw those cigarette burns on her body. Det. Dave Bannion: Yeah, I saw them. Every single one of them.

*Lt. Ted Wilks: When barflys get killed, it's for any one of a dozen crummy reasons, you know that.

*Vince Stone: Hey, that's nice perfume. Debby Marsh: Something new. It attracts mosquitoes and repels men.

*Debby Marsh "(in Bannion's plain hotel room)": Hey, I like this. Early nothing!

*Debby Marsh: The main thing is to have the money. I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better.

*Debby Marsh "(to Mrs Duncan)": We're sisters under the mink.

*Debby Marsh: I'm gonna die...I don't want to die. I must look awful. Vince should have never ruined my looks. It was a rotten thing to do. Dave... I'm gonna die...Remember how angry you got when I asked you about your wife? Det. Dave Bannion: I wasn't angry. You and Katie would have gotten along fine.


*When Vince Stone first sees Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion, the song in the background is "Put the Blame on Mame," a witty reference to Glenn Ford's (Bannion) performance in "Gilda" (1946).

*The film's screenplay was written by former crime reporter Sidney Boehm and based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by William P. McGivern. In 1952 the serial was published as a novel.

*This film noir turns the role of the femme fatale on its head. According to film critic Grant Tracey, "Whereas many noirs contain the tradition of the femme fatale, the deadly spiderwoman who destroys her man and his family and career, "The Big Heat" inverts this narrative paradigm, making [Det. Bannion] the indirect agent of fatal destruction. All four women he meets — from clip joint singer, Lucy Chapman to gun moll Debby — are destroyed."

*The actress Jocelyn Brando, who plays the part of Det. Dave Bannion's wife, was the sister of actor Marlon Brando.

*Bannion's one-man campaign against a major criminal organisation in which he discards the rules in order to get justice done presages many action movies of later years starring Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and others. One major difference is that Glenn Ford's character does not actually kill anyone. The various deaths are not directly caused by him: he does not kill his wife's murderer, simply spreads rumours that lead to it. At the end of the story the main villains are still alive to stand trial.

Other uses

*Stan Ridgway used "The Big Heat" as the title for one of his albums.

* "The Big Heat" is the English title of a 1988 Hong Kong film directed by Andrew Kam, Johnny To and produced by Tsui Hark. See "The Big Heat (1988 film)".


# [ Roger Ebert's review]
#cite book | author=David M. Meyer | title=A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video | publisher =Avon Books | year=1998 | id=ISBN 0-380-79067-X

External links

* [ Review] by Film Noir author Eddie Muller
*imdb title | id=0045555 | title=The Big Heat
* [ Greatest Film Site]

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