THE BIG HEAT (1953) Dir. Fritz Lang
Starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando and Lee Marvin.
"The Big Heat" was an early favorite of mine when I first became a noir devotee as a teen. I saw it several times into my twenties but hadn't revisited until recently. It had receded in my mind, probably because so few of director Fritz Lang's other post war american movies impressed me. Lang's other fifties movies like "Human Desire" from the next year (also with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame)tended toward the flat footed and ham handed, often so lacking in style they just looked bad.
It turns out my reservations about Lang were unfounded when it comes to "The Big Heat". This is a tough picture in all the best ways. The pivotal twist that sets Ford on his dark road is just as compelling as I remembered. Shocking, even. Ford gives such a credibly gritty performance that you'd never guess he was previously known for lighter roles. It's no surprise that Lee Marvin holds the screen even in this early supporting role. But the real star here is Gloria Grahame. The arc of her character in this film extraordinary for the fifties. In the final tally, she's the only character who's willing to do whatever it takes, not Ford. And that's just damn exciting.
Like Lang's other fifties films, "The Big Heat" isn't stylish in the expressionist way usually associated with the classic noir era. But in this instance the flat, direct approach only enhances the impact of the story. And when it comes down to it, the story is the what impresses the most here. Lang was a capable director when he needed to be but like so many others, he needs a great script to make a great film.