The Big Heat (1953)
D. Fritz Lang
(Warning: Potential spoilers)
Well, it’s the first Classic Era movie I’ve reviewed in this category. Might as well start at the top.
The Big Heat is Fritz Lang’s best American movie (for my money, his best movie period). It’s top drawer in Glenn Ford’s catalog, Lee Marvin’s catalog and those of a host of fine character actors (Jeannette Nolan, playing against type as a cold-blooded blackmailer, is a particular standout).
But Gloria Grahame, Nolan’s “sister under the mink,” owns it….and them. She smolders through noir‘s darkest night, a night only Lang could provide, invests it with her peculiar brand of laconic feline energy, and the hotter and brighter she burns–scarred face or no–the deeper the shadows around her fall.
These were Grahame’s salad days: Give her more than three lines and she would own any movie she was in, including In a Lonely Place, which is one of the ten greatest American movies. The Big Heat doesn’t fall much below that level and it might very well be the greatest Gloria Grahame movie, which is a whole other arrangement.
It’s easy to forget when you’re just thinking about her–and how she usually ends up–that she could bring a girlish quality, too, the same quality a kitten brings to a lion’s den. Glamourous kitten, but kitten just the same:
Even at first glance (and that screenshot is literally our first glance), there’s something more, something different. But you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a passing thing, that she’ll still end up being just another starlet playing a victim in a steamy thriller. You could be forgiven even more when she speaks and it’s a girl’s voice. A big girl, but still….a girl.
That’s just Nature calling. Human nature, sure–that old thing–but something more primal too. There’s a sense that she’s so attuned to the rhythms of the Jungle it can never consume her the way you already know it will consume everybody else. For starters, she’s picked the only natural path for a kitten among the lions….or the wolves. To keep just anybody–or everybody–from jumping her bones, with or without permission, she’s given her permission to the biggest, meanest wolf she can find, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone.
Marvin was known for playing thuggish characters early on and this was his definitive turn in the days before anybody knew he could act and he was all presence. Vince Stone’s a pure animal. You’re a little surprised to discover he can manage modern technology, like telephones.
You’re even more surprised he can form sentences when he speaks into them.
That’s the kind of playmate Grahame’s Debby Marsh has picked for herself. The biggest wolf in the pack….
…That’s true, even if Stone’s boss, MIke Lagano, (a quietly menacing Alexander Scourby), is the one with the polish to be CEO in the flat, urban setting that’s required to blur text and subtext, the better for modern minds to comprehend them.
The main story line involves Ford’s lock-jawed straight-cop-in-a-crooked-city going after Lagano and Stone (and the tentacles of their gang, which reach all the way to the Police Commissioner’s office) because they killed his wife. The moral danger Ford places himself in by turning vigilante might have made a good, albeit more conventional, movie in itself. Such is the quality of The Big Heat‘s script, its deft narrative and Lang’s mastery in fusing mood and method.
But Grahame easily subverts all that, and turns the film into something larger, something which yields, in turn, the hard, lethal kiss of tragedy so much of noir was content to flirt with. Debby Marsh could easily have been the conventional bad girl looking for an excuse to turn good. The Big Heat has its boundaries expanded, and inherent genre limitation turned on its head, by Grahame’s ability to suggest the two sides are not simply interchangeable, but in real, possibly irresolvable, conflict. You believe her when she wonders if Ford’s Dave Bannion is the man she’s been looking for, the one man who can take her away from the wolf….or take the wolf down. The hero of any number of other noirs…
But you believe her, too, when she says “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better!” You get a sense of how much it would take to make her really give up the danger if she has to give up the life she’s bought into along with it.
It would take a lot.
A lot happens.
And it’s Grahame who covers the transitions. Ford’s Bannion goes from decent stick to cold-blooded avenger and back again and he handles all the usual angles as well as you would expect. But Grahame’s Marsh takes a longer way around and ends up surrounding a story that was probably meant to surround her. Just for starters, this film has two of the most shocking sequences in American cinema. She and Vince Stone are the key players in both (the only players in the second). They would be. And they switch places. In the first Grahame is a not-quite-innocent victim, in the second an avenger who makes Bannion look like a conscience-stricken priest.
But it’s the same girl. And she’s been a few other girls in between–all human, all convincing. That’s the kind of walking over, under and around a plot that precious few actors can do (Ford did the same thing in 3:10 to Yuma, and one wonders if he learned a thing or two watching Grahame in this earlier film). There’s finally no pity, “self” or otherwise, in Grahame’s performance and no way out for her character.
You can understand why audiences, then and now, couldn’t quite make up their minds about her, whether she should be admired, pitied or feared.
Or was it her characters?
Or even just the pieces of those characters she was bound to invent or discover once somebody gave her a blueprint called a script and the script was even halfway good?
Who knows. You can have a lot of fun trying to figure it all out, none more than here, where she, more than anyone on film–the actress who had already been married and divorced from Nicholas Ray and had already slept with his thirteen-year-old son on the way to marrying him a decade later–never lets you forget that the dreams, American or otherwise..
are always kept next to the Nightmares…
…American or otherwise.