Directed by Fritz Lang
Now this is what a noir film should be. Good guys, bad guys, and a lot of dubious ground between them. (Mind you, it’s not a noir film in the strictest sense.)
Perspective is everything, I suppose, and perhaps that is why (for me) noir works best in black and white. It’s how I came to know them when I was younger. This doesn’t mean more recent, colour noir movies don’t work (just look at Chinatown and L.A. Confidential), but black and white just seems more appropriate.
Maybe it’s the sense of shadow and gray that comes across. It reflects the heart of these stories, an uncertain, dangerous world where it’s hard to tell who is on your side, or even what side you’re on.
As in Gilda, the casting of Glenn Ford is perfect. He plays these parts well. He’s the hero, but not so heroic as to be unbelievable. In fact, the type of hero he plays here is the same type Clint Eastwood got so much mileage out of for so long. He’s the ambiguous good guy.
Then there’s Gloria Grahame who gives a wonderful performance as Debby, the gangster’s girl.
But where The Big Heat really excells is in casting Lee Marvin, an actor who gives Robert Mitchum a run for his money as one of the meanest s.o.b.’s to appear on screen.
Marvin’s explosive and sadistic temper come across as so natural you would be afraid to meet him anywhere but on the screen.
In many ways, The Big Heat is a template for certain types of films (though it certainly wasn’t the first to use this pattern). This is a revenge story. But watching it from this point, over 50 years after it was made, it’s easy to forget that some of the set-ups and patterns were not established in the way they are now so, while in some ways they appear to have a certain stale, over-used quality, the truth is they were fresh and even alarming in 1953.
For example, there is the set-up scene where the domestic life of the Ford character is shattered. The scene becomes the catalyst for the character’s later actions. This pattern has been used over and over again since (again, particularly by Eastwood).
Regardless whether it’s perceived as new or cliche, it works. From start to finish The Big Heat holds you and carries you through its dark unwinding. To be perfectly true to the noir genre, Ford’s character is not as corrupt as he should be (though his revenge could be considered a form of corruption, I suppose). But this is quibbling. It certainly has the noir feel and that is far more important. Noir is really about atmosphere; it’s about tone.
This one is highly recommended.