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A girl and a gun

For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at the career of Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker who took pride in repeatedly remaking the same basic film endlessly.  We’re finally done with Chabrol—which means it’s time to skip back in time to one of Chabrol’s idols, Fritz Lang.

If you want to play along at home, TCM will be screening The Big Heat on Friday December 20th.  It’s as hard-hitting and bold as any American film noir—which is appropriate, for a film that found Lang updating his Dr. Mabuse franchise for American audiences.

Thirty years had passed from Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 20 years from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. William Mc-Givern’s novel The Big Heat had been se-rialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1952–53. McGivern’s books had inspired many a classic crime film (not to mention writing scripts for several film and television noirs), and screenwriter Sydney Boehm had been a crime reporter for some 14 years before moving to Hollywood to oversee over four dozen films noir. Boehm’s script for The Big Heat would be awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America.

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The film follows Police Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), who is learning that his world is controlled by a sinister underworld conspiracy run by an untouchable crime lord named Mike Logana. Logana’s agents are everywhere, even in the upper echelons of the police force, and Bannion is a marked man for daring to investigate this syndicate. Logana’s assassins make a mistake, however, and a car bomb intended for Bannion kills his wife instead.

When Bannion vows revenge on the gang that destroyed his family and took away the mother of his little girl, he is suspended. He hands over his badge, but keeps the gun. “That doesn’t belong to the department—it’s mine. Bought and paid for.”

Being kicked off the force is actually a boon to his investigation, as it turns out: it turns out that a corrupt cop on Logana’s payroll killed himself after writing an incriminating letter. The dead man’s widow, Bertha Duncan, has been using that letter to extort payments from the crime lord. Logana continues to pay, because if he were to kill her, she’s arranged that the letter will be made public.

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And that’s the delicious twist: for once the bad guys are bound by rules. If Bannion kills lady Duncan, though, he can bring down “the big heat” on the whole sordid affair and exact his revenge.  Of course, is killing women how cops are supposed to behave?

The crux of McGivern’s novel is Bannion’s inner struggle with his anger. Driven by hate, he becomes no different than the gangsters he despises. His redemption is when he turns back from his vengeance, accepts the kindness of his friends and learns the see the goodness in the world, too.

The usual line on Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat is that it evidences a new maturity in Lang’s worldview, which was otherwise dominated by misanthropy and paranoia.

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This interpretation, though, ignores an important and inconvenient fact: While Bannion does not kill the widow, the widow gets killed. The big heat is brought down on Logana; it has to be for Bannion’s return to the police force to be a happy ending of any kind. Bannion can see the downfall of the Mabuse figure without dirtying his own hands because someone else pulls the trigger for him.

That someone else is Debby (Gloria Grahame).  She’s the misused girlfriend of Logana’s enforcer Vince.

And Vince is a thug. At one point he throws coffee in Debby’s face, leaving her forever scarred. She has endured abuse for a long time, but as her skin boils away she decides the time has come to put an end to all of this.

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It doesn’t take much persuading from Bannion to convince her that it’s in her power to change things.  And Debby unleashes a torrent of violence and chaos that brings Logana’s operation to its knees.

And it’s Debbie that offers us a window into what was going on in Lang’s head.

Although the film was rushed through production by an impatient Columbia, Lang nevertheless took pains to revise Boehm’s screenplay. By charting the alterations to Debby’s character from McGivern’s book through to the screen, we can see how Lang deliberately altered Debby’s role in such a way as to undermine the somewhat naive moralizing of McGivern’s novel. Debby is Lang’s avenging angel, the agent of destruction who does what Bannion cannot or dare not do. She is the whore with a heart of gold, a recurring Langian archetype familiar from Rancho Notorious, Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window, Clash by Night and any other Lang picture, for that matter.

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McGivern only introduces her after half the story has unfolded; Lang introduces his Debby in the opening sequence of the film.

Here’s how the book handles it: Bannion is surprised and shocked when Debby, using her own weapon, takes it upon herself to assassinate Mrs. Duncan—he had informed Debby of Bertha’s significance, but only by way of venting his own frustrations. Bannion is only dimly aware that Debby was even listening.

And here’s how Lang handles it in the film: Bannion all but assigns the task to Debby. First he carefully explains why he wishes he could summon the guts to murder Bertha in cold blood. Then, he gives Debby a gun for self-defense. He arms her first with information and then with bullets.

Already a lost cause for her sleazy lifestyle and selfish decisions, she can take on Bannion’s mission of vengeance without compromising her soul, without com-promising his. With her bandaged scars, she is literally two-faced. One side is all sweetness and light, but beneath her bandages, under her burning flesh, lies a motivation no less vengeful than Bannion’s. She does not retreat from the abyss; she drives everyone else over it with her.

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The Big Heat was a low-rent rush job as far as Columbia was concerned, Fritz Lang no longer meriting the kind of fawning treatment he once enjoyed. The studio bought McGivern’s novel in January 1953, and completed the film within four months. The shoot itself lasted a scant 28 days. Preview audiences gave the picture top-notch marks, but it opened to luke-warm business in the states and hostile, dismissive reviews by critics. The Big Heat became known as the most violent thriller of its day, remembered if at all for the cruel scalding of Gloria Grahame’s Debby.

Although The Big Heat lacked the bigger budgets or marquee name stars of his earlier Hollywood works, and although it had been raced through production at breakneck speed, it stands as one of Lang’s greatest accomplishments and an enduring noir classic. If only the films that followed on its heels could have better followed in its footsteps, perhaps Lang’s career might have taken a different path.

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5 Responses A girl and a gun
Posted By LD : December 14, 2013 12:33 pm

What a great noir with great characters. Ford as Bannion, loyal cop and family man. Debbie Marsh is my favorite character portrayed by Gloria Graham. She is a totally vacuous creature literally unable to pass a mirror without admiring herself. A decoration in the eyes of others and herself until….There is something satisfying in seeing her take charge and extract justifiable revenge. Lagana operates on a code of “business is business” but my family is sacred. Bertha Duncan is played to perfection by Jeanette Nolan. Cold and cruel. Vince Stone is a sadist.

The only weakness for me is the Bannion’s marriage. Too good to be true. But a treat to see Jocelyn Brando on screen. This movie is a favorite.

Posted By Doug : December 14, 2013 3:09 pm

Thank you, David, for introducing us to another fine film-I’d heard of Dr Mabuse, but this one I wasn’t aware of.
When you mentioned that the script had garnered an Edger Allan Poe award, my ears perked up-that is no small achievement.
Ford and Graham? This sounds like a winner all around.

Posted By I finally saw ‘The Big Heat’ (1953) : December 14, 2013 4:12 pm

[…] TCM is running it again December 20, and you might want to check it out. […]

Posted By Richard Brandt : December 16, 2013 4:02 pm

What a tough, uncompromising, brutal movie this still is. Yes, what Bannion doesn’t have the balls for, Debbie does. Oddly, it’s really Debbie who pulls Bannion from the brink at the end, when she asks him to talk about all the reasons he was in love with his wife in the first place. Through her one selfless act, he’s able to recover his humanity. This is the movie Gloria Grahame deserved that Oscar for! I’m just sayin’.

I do like how some of the little people that Bannion encounters in his quest become part of his network of helpers.

Check out Glenn Ford’s Bannion in that last shot, when he returns to his desk at the police station. He doesn’t seem real delighted to be there. Things will never be the same.

Posted By robbushblog : December 16, 2013 5:00 pm

Here’s the review I wrote for Netflix 3 & 1/2 years ago: “Glenn Ford put in some solid work in this one. Did you know that Marlon Brando had a sister who was also an actress? Neither did I, but she plays Ford’s super understanding wife in that wonderful (though now kind of corny), fragile 50′s way. She is the perfect wife for Ford, the perfect mother of his little girl. She makes it all the more understandable why Ford would set his vengeful sights on the mobsters, including a fairly young Lee Marvin. Marvin plays a brutal thug who puts his cigarette out on a woman’s hand (a young, blond Carolyn Jones, better known as Morticia Addams) and can find no better way to shut up his yappy moll than to fling hot coffee in her face! Gloria Grahame plays the recipient of the scalding caffeine shower and she is great, as she consistently was in character parts such as these. Just like Gloria’s scalded countenance, this film crackles!”

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