All film noir is, at bottom, bitter. Even when the stories are about one man’s solitary struggle against an overwhelmingly corrupt system (and they almost all are), the prevailing message is never that it’s possible to reform the system, only that it’s sometimes possible to take down one specific bad guy, and usually at a terrible cost. Noir is all about Pyrrhic victories, and The Big Heat is no exception–indeed, it’s virtually paradigmatic. The movie’s heart is cold and blackened, not only by the tragedies which befall its characters but by an all-consuming fatalism and futility. The story doesn’t end with victory and celebration; instead, we’re reminded, in the final seconds before the end title, that the work of cleanup men (in this case, homicide detectives) never ends. There’s always one more body, one more murder, and it never gets better.
The Big Heat‘s story follows familiar lines: Dave Bannion is a homicide detective investigating the murder of a showgirl, a suspicious suicide, and the potential link between them. This leads him to his town’s crime boss, Mike Lagana, and Lagana’s second-in-command, Vince Stone. Stone is played by Lee Marvin, in an astonishing wave of energy and barely-controlled viciousness. He’s like a Tex Avery wolf who actually bites–particularly women. A scene in which Marvin burns Gloria Grahame’s face with a pot of hot coffee has ensconced itself in cinema history, and justifiably so. It’s a display of pure evil, and the physical shock of seeing it never diminishes.
Even in a movie with three great performances, Grahame stands out. She delivers the movie’s acid dialogue with an edge of laughter, reminiscent of Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners but with a gun-moll’s cynicism and avarice. Even when the plot requires her to undergo the closest thing possible to a change of heart, she makes it believable, not a mere contrivance. She’s got revenge on her mind, not justice. The willingness to take revenge in place of justice is one of The Big Heat’s main themes. Glenn Ford plays David Bannion, who’s widowed halfway through the film for his investigation of Lagana and Stone, as a man consumed by hatred and scorn–not only for the criminals he pursues, but for anyone (civilians, and even fellow cops) who doesn’t share his rage. He shoves away almost every offer of help, stalking through the film with eyes afire, a six-foot clenched fist. Ford conjures such a bilious venom throughout the movie, he can barely get his lines past his clenched teeth, but somehow it never becomes parodic. The viewer has seen what made Bannion this way, so it’s easy to accept him.
The noir films of the 1940s, like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity, were essentially morality plays with an edge. They showed the darkness in society, but there was something redeemable at the heart of even the most desperate, squalid situation. But by the early 1950s, that hope had oozed out almost for good. The Big Heat (like Detour or Kiss Me, Deadly) depicts a world where good may triumph for the moment, but that’s hardly something to be counted on; human nature is fundamentally corrupt, and it’s best to hold onto what can be preserved, and lash out with vengeful force at any threat. It isn’t an uplifting movie. But unlike so many jaded, winking noir pastiches which followed it in the last four decades, The Big Heat seems to have come by its rage and its misanthropy honestly, and that gives it an impact which few films, present or past, share.