The Big Heat (1953)

“I guess a scar isn’t so bad. Not if it’s only on one side… I can always go through life sideways.”

‘The Big Heat’, directed by Fritz Lang in 1953, is an American crime drama starring Glenn Ford as Sergeant Dave Bannion, a police officer who becomes determined to bring down a network of organised crime in his city. The story starts with the death of Bannion’s colleague, Tom Duncan apparently by suicide. Duncan’s mistress claims that this is impossible which leads Bannion to reinterview the late policeman’s wife. Bannion’s superiors seem desperate to shut him down as he traces a path from Duncan’s death to the local mob. The gangsters don’t take it lying down, however, as each supportive witness Bannion encounters is either maimed or killed. Eventually, Bannion himself is targeted with a bomb that kills his wife, an act the leads him to resign and continue his crusade on a freelance basis. It’s a dark, knotty movie, a complex conspiracy narrative shot with Lang’s characteristic precision and style. There are moments of shocking violence throughout, including a surprisingly horrific scene in which a corrupt and brutal cop, played by Lee Marvin, scalds the face of a moll with a pot of hot coffee. This is made all the more affecting by taking place off screen, with only the scream of the victim and the aftereffects of the scalding allowing the viewer to understand the attack. The performances are all solid: Ford’s stoic but increasingly desperate policeman is played perfectly with a mixture of rock-like incorruptibility and repressed anger, whilst at the other end of the scale, Marvin’s corrupt cop is mercurial and unstable.

Would I recommend it? It’s a vicious film noir directed with unflinching vision and style. Watch in a double bill with ‘Point Blank’, another revenge film later in Marvin’s career that sees him play the avenging role.

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