Posted by David Kalat on December 14, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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