It begins with a suicide. Not a particularly nasty suicide, mind you, as the victim all but rests his head on a desk as if curling up for a late afternoon nap. The gunshot immediately brings forth a second character, though she’s a none-too-panicky sort who may as well have stumbled upon spilled milk in the kitchen, rather than the freshly minted corpse of her beloved husband. And so we have 1953’s The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s hot little ticket to the noir sweepstakes; a film as tightly wound as any of the big name entries, though one of the few to recognize the inherent pleasure of watching Lee Marvin toss scalding hot coffee into a woman’s face for having the audacity to live up to her loose character. The woman in question, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), remains one of the era’s most scintillating dames of ill repute; the sort of tramp who isn’t above adding a dash of class to her gutter ballets, even as she’s readying herself for the inevitable fall. Standing above the din, though only for as long as it takes to lose his pretty young wife to murder, is Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion; a righteous detective whose fealty to truth and justice renders him absurdly naïve at best, and embarrassingly impotent in the long run. He’s a sucker who insists on peeking behind the curtain, even if it costs him everything he holds dear.
When it turns out that the opening suicide is a fellow cop, Bannion obligingly pursues a few leads, though his pavement-pounding turns up little save the usual half-truths. Seems the old guy was in a sickly way, and he could no longer take the pain. But what’s a wife to know? And what about the B-girl, the one who emerged from the dead cop’s bustling stable just long enough to reveal her nasty little secret of seduction and false promises? Foolishly, she believed he was about to divorce his wife, though she wouldn’t be the first by-the-hour starlet to assume life could be built on the remnants of a motel quickie. She doesn’t buy the official story, and while more vague than exact, her tale is just enough to get her killed. By the film’s well-dressed dialogue of the period, it’s apparent that she was raped, strangled, burned with cigarettes, and tossed out of a moving car. Her body quickly turns up, however, what with this sick town being not so sick as to ignore nude females bloating roadside, and Bannion quickly theorizes that there’s more here than a tired cop who casually cheated on his wife. His decision to keep his nose to the stink lays the groundwork for the requisite tragedy.
Bannion’s domestic life, so achingly Eisenhower in its honey-I’m-home banality, turns hellish in all the time it takes for wifey-poo to meet her maker through the crudely effective means of a car bomb. Only the dynamite was intended for Dave, and the killers didn’t anticipate her need to pick up the babysitter. Though the car appears only to have suffered minor damage (yeah, it’s on fire, but only the hood is crushed), Mrs. Bannion dies most cruelly, as she’s pulled from the wreckage without so much as a black smudge on her cheek. But die she must, as Dave must become world-weary and vengeful inside by the next frame, a task taken on with full fury by the ever-reliable Ford. We believe him and in him every step of the way, even if he’s more likely to knock a goon to the ground than dirty his piece. Bannion is after the men who slaughtered his wife, yes, but he’s also on the march to bring down the whole rotten enterprise; a town so teeming with corruption that city officials think nothing of playing cards with gangsters and low-lifes, even if it would be impossible to explain why you’re spending your evenings with a guy who looks like Lee Marvin. Semper Fi sumbitch though he was, few men walked so fine a line between barrel-chested toughness and Mongoloid ugly. It didn’t help matters that Lang lit the poor bastard like he was an escaped exhibit from the travelling freak show.
But at least there’s the whiff of manhood about him. The crime boss, Lagana, is an effete slug with a mother complex; the Norman Bates of the rough-and-tumble syndicate. When Bannion visits his estate one evening, ostensibly to get answers, Lagana is dwarfed by a massive oil painting of the sainted mama, leading to the inescapable conclusion that his “gang” is just about the only socially acceptable manner by which to indulge his locker room fantasies. And the more vulgar the better. Typically, Lagana forces others to perform the heavy lifting, proving yet again that wherever there is a powerful man behind a desk, there is a near-fanatical need to overcompensate for fears of sexual inadequacy. It’s no stretch to believe that Debby once nestled under Lagana’s well-tailored arm, only to be shoved aside for yet another glimpse of mother-dear. Even there, she took a beating without complaint, but soon learned that with Vince, she’d at least get a pillowside reprieve from the pain, no matter how brief. And while Lagana stews in the juices of opulence, flattery, and perfumed luxury, it is the brutishness of his underlings who are cast in the sweatiest of lights.
And yet, Marvin’s Vince Stone is practically heroic in his dimwitted adherence to the criminal code, the very one that secures a swell penthouse pad in return for the joy of smacking around the non-compliant. And so we come back to Stone’s arm candy, Miss Marsh, the very one to be so kind as to stand still to receive her boiling cauldron of Folgers. Though tipping its cap to Cagney’s grapefruit in the same breath it calls for more aggressively leashing our womenfolk in the post-war era, the disfigurement is, by Debby’s estimation, not entirely unwarranted. After all, she openly chased after Bannion like a lost puppy, and was she not prepared to put flesh to well-starched sheet after a mere five words and a shot of cheap whiskey? So when you come back late, both interrupting a highly-charged card game and humiliating Vince in front of his boys, it’s hardly unconscionable to spend the rest of the picture with half your face wrapped in gauze. Debby knows the score, and though now resigned to a life in the shadows (she even returns to Bannion’s apartment and insists the lights stay decidedly dimmed), she’s just a sap, after all; a one-tricky floozy without the self-respect to stay off her back now and again. Needless to say, she bucks up, stiffens her resolve, and wrests control of the justice train at long last, though not out of any sense of nobility. She’s up for the martyr bit, but who’s to begrudge her a long-needed fix of bloodlust? Though her “resurrection” is not entirely unexpected, the manner and timing must come to the viewer unexplained, as a buzzing light in the night sky.
But what of Dave Bannion, this one-man crusade for righteousness? It’s telling that he fails to kill a single man in his quest (even the final shootout with Vince remains wound-free), and one wonders if Lang would argue that vigilantism must, by necessity, be a hollow pursuit. Bannion can’t pull the trigger in numerous contexts – he even brushes aside a heaving Debby with a widower’s soppy guilt – so has the call been made for men of less explosive tendencies to lead us to the suburbs? If we become like the city, do we not die amidst the rubble? All of this seemed moot when Bannion started choking the life out of the crooked cop’s scheming wife, but even there, true release must yield to the coitus interruptus of an ill-timed intrusion. And hell, Bannion’s efforts, while boosted by the underpinnings of a clenched jaw and lifeless stare, could not match Debby’s noble deed. While Bannion stroked and slapped and pounded himself to no avail, Debby used the female orgasm for good, rather than ill. Revolutionary to be sure, but quickly stifled by a politically hypocritical decade that channeled such electricity into self-loathing and pill-popping deference. Women could, in theory, still bloody their knees and submit to being passed around like a bubblegum card, but never again would their potency outwit the male of the species. In just a few short years, Bannion would always get his juice back, even if it had to wait until the final act.