2017.23: The Big Heat (1953) – Blu ray
There’s a scene in The Big Heat… happily-married, decent cop and father Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is at home with his wife and child. Already under the attention of ruthless criminals and their boss who is the kingpin of a corrupted city, Bannion hugs and kisses his loving wife, and for a moment everything seems right in the world. If this was a modern movie, they’d kill his wife or go after his child, I thought to myself. And then- bang. Bannion’s world collapses as his wife goes out to the family car and is blown up by an explosion intended for Bannion. Having ripped away from him his family, it sends Bannion onto a road of revenge and hate, giving up his badge and taking the law into his own hands. This a 1970s flick or a modern Liam Neeson thriller, right?
The Big Heat is a thoroughly modern film; other than featuring Production Code-mandated bloodless gunshots, it is surprisingly violent, and brutal. I don’t know why the death of Bannion’s wife seems so shocking, but it is, as if the film steps suddenly over some unexpected line that films from the ‘fifties aren’t meant to cross. But why the surprise, this is a film-noir, right? Perhaps it is how Glenn Ford, as an actor, seems to embody American decency and his family some American Ideal. Ripping it away from Bannion and the audience just seems something done in 1970s movies, not a film from 1953. A ridiculous notion I know, but all the same, I can only imagine how shocking this film was to viewers at the time, particularly with how Ford portrays the grieving Bannion’s descent into darkness and single-minded path of revenge. The film seems to start as one thing, then turns into another, darker piece with subversive undercurrents.
The clues come earlier of course- the first shot of the film is of a handgun, and the first scene is of a suicide. A woman hearing the noise of the gunshot walks down the stairs but does not react to the suicide scene; instead she calmly walks over and finds, and examines, what appears to be a suicide note/confession addressed to the District Attorney. She takes the note and moves to a desk phone and makes a call. Its clear that something is wrong- and the District Attorney is not going to receive that letter.
We are about to enter a dark and pretty-much permanently night-time world of criminality and corruption which will cost our one good detective his family. Its a pretty desperate, violent world, too- particularly for women. After one woman raises doubts about the suicide and is seen talking to Bannion, she is tortured and killed, and when another is caught talking to him, she has hot coffee thrown in her face, permanently disfiguring her. It’s as if they are caught in some web of fate being woven about Bannion’s sense of righteousness that even destroys his wife. Its almost the definitive film noir, and Bannion becoming a wild card as dangerous to others as the criminals that he is hunting. Even his child daughter becomes a target of the criminals desperate to rein him in; distressingly, anything goes, there are no rules. How alarming this must have seemed to audiences back in 1953.
So what price justice in this dark world? Bannion has to resort to his fists and his gun to get the justice he needs, threatening violence to others at every turn. Eventually Bannion brings the criminals to account for their crimes and justice is served, and he returns to his job as a celebrated lawman, as if we are back in some old western. But it isn’t as simple as that seems- he has left three dead women in his wake and he has lost everything he held dear, indeed only left that which cost him everything he lost. There is a bitter irony to the closing moments. Somehow this just feels thoroughly modern.
Its a brilliant, thrilling and rather disturbing film.
Another blu-ray release from Indicator, this is pretty exceptional. There are some very fine extras alongside a great HD picture, and I must make special mention of the excellent booklet. I love informative booklets and this is one of the very best I’ve seen, with an essay, an archive interview with the director and several excerpts of reviews of the film offering various viewpoints. Highly recommended and essential for fans of film noir.