The Big Heat (DVD)

“We’re sisters under the mink.”

In 1952, director Fritz Lang found himself entangled in the Hollywood blacklist paranoia of the times. Lang, a fugitive from Nazi Germany, of course denied any suggestion that he was a Communist or had any Communist sympathies, but there were certain pictures and documents that suggested, however unconvincingly, otherwise. Whatever the truth, after completing Rancho Notorious and Clash By Night (both released by RKO in early 1952), Lang found himself apparently shunned for a period of time. It was only when he met Columbia president Harry Cohn and was able to convince him of his innocence that things changed.

Cohn first went to bat for Lang by arranging to get him a directing job on an independent film being released by Warner Brothers — The Blue Gardenia. The effort was a fine film noir, although its reception was mixed at the time. It was successful enough, however, to prompt Cohn to offer Lang a director’s contract beginning in January 1953. Although Lang had ideas of his own for possible films (including one for a musical set in Vienna), all were rejected by Cohn and Lang found himself simply assigned to two studio projects, both starring Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. Both would prove to be interesting films fitting nicely into the film noir genre. The second and lesser of the two was Human Desire. The first, however, has deservedly gone on to be recognized as one of the key films of the genre.

That film was The Big Heat and Columbia has now released it on DVD in a reasonable-looking if spare edition.

Homicide sergeant Dave Bannion is assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of a fellow police officer named Duncan. What at first appears to be a fairly straight-forward case develops complications as Bannion soon finds out that the married Duncan had a girlfriend on the side named Lucy Chapman. Lucy is murdered soon after talking to Bannion, having told him that she believes Duncan’s widow is blackmailing local syndicate boss Mike Lagana. Bannion confronts Lagana and suggests that he can implicate him in Lucy’s death. Lagana responds by having a bomb planted in Bannion’s car that accidentally kills Bannion’s wife instead.

Bannion soon becomes upset over the lack of progress in finding his wife’s killer and he accuses his superior and the police commissioner of dragging their feet due to pressure from the syndicate. He is asked to resign and then proceeds to carry out his own investigation to implicate Lagana and his chief henchman Vince Stone. Debby Marsh, Stone’s girlfriend, becomes interested in Bannion and makes a play for him. When Stone learns of this, he becomes enraged and disfigures Debby’s face. Debby goes to Bannion and tells him all she knows about Stone and his work for Lagana. This leads to a life-or-death confrontation between Bannion and Stone in which Debby plays the key role.

The Big Heat is one of those films that makes one appreciate the old studio system. Columbia had purchased the story rights for William McGivern’s novel “The Big Heat” after its serialization in the Saturday Evening Post and assigned the writing of the screenplay to veteran film noir scenarist Sydney Boehm. Lang had the opportunity to work on revisions with Boehm. The resulting script was tight and suspenseful with finely delineated characters. The studio then turned to its roster of contract talent to cast the film.

Glenn Ford was chosen to play Bannion. Ford, who had been a Columbia contract player for over a decade and for years had often seemed too fresh-faced and young for his roles, was starting to develop more character in his face by the early 1950s. He suited the Bannion character to a “T,” offering earnestness and doggedness tinged with a hint of weariness all of which seemed just right for the role. He was well paired with Gloria Grahame who played Debby and who had just recently won a supporting actress Oscar for her work in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful. It is Gloria Grahame who most sticks in your mind once The Big Heat is over — her along with Lee Marvin, who is brilliant as Vince Stone. His work is as fine a portrait of an evil, well-groomed henchman who toadies to the boss and ultimately proves to be the typically cowardly underling as you’re likely to see in a film. Lang recognized this and, as an example, chose to focus on Marvin’s reaction to having thrown the scalding coffee in Debby’s face rather than on Debby herself.

The Big Heat received only a modest positive response in terms of both critical and box-office reaction upon its release in North America. Overseas, it was different as both French and British critics offered very complimentary comments on both the film’s script and its execution by Lang. Since then, the film has come to be recognized as one of the great films noir. It’s certainly one of the most violent and sadistic of them. In Bannion, the film also foreshadows such more modern cop anti-heroes as “Dirty Harry.” Bannion ultimately triumphs but the cost is his home, the safety of his daughter and the lives of four women, and for a time, his job on the police force. The film packs a lot into its brisk 89-minute running time and has lost none of its impact over the almost 50 years since its initial release.

It would be nice to be able to report that Columbia had gone the extra mile to present The Big Heat in as clean a transfer as some of the other recent DVD classic releases, but that is not the case. The film is presented full frame in accord with its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, but there is quite a lot of age-related speckling present that modest digital clean-up could have rectified. Columbia apparently chose not to do so. That said, the black and white image is quite acceptable. It provides a finely-detailed picture with deep blacks, fairly clean whites, and good shadow detail. Edge enhancement is not an issue.

The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and delivers the film quite competently. Dialogue is strong and clear with no noticeable distortion or age-related hiss. A French language track is provided and subtitles are provided in seven languages as is typical of most Columbia DVDs.

Supplementary content is modest indeed. It includes six lobby card images and three theatrical trailers — a re-release one for The Big Heat and others for Suddenly Last Summer and The Lady from Shanghai. Considering the wealth of material available on the production of The Big Heat and on Lang himself, it’s certainly disappointing that Columbia made no effort even to provide background information on either.

The Big Heat is one of the key films noir of the early 1950s. It combines fine acting, a taut script and energetic direction by Fritz Lang into a most entertaining package that has aged well over the intervening decades. Columbia’s DVD effort allows for a satisfactory viewing experience of the film, but is disappointingly thin in enriching that experience with supporting information. It’s easy to recommend this DVD simply on the basis of the film content, but the whole experience could have been much more rewarding with a little effort on Columbia’s part.


The film is completely exonerated, but accomplice Columbia takes some heat for simply tagging along for the ride. Court is adjourned.

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