THE BIG HEAT (1953): Fritz Lang’s Definitive Noir Resurfaces on Blu-ray

Twilight Time re-released the previously out of print Blu-ray The Big Heat last month in a limited encore edition of 3,000 units.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one. An honest cop works a seemingly routine case which uncovers a wider conspiracy of corruption involving not only ruthless gangsters, but crooked cops within his own department.

So, that’s the setup for half the cop movies ever made, but there’s a reason that such plots and themes have been repeatedly used to the point that they now feel formulaic: they can be incredibly effective. Much of the language of film we take for granted was conceived, birthed, and incubated by films noir. Case in point: the crackling The Big Heat, a film which fits the plot synopsis above and yet is as fresh, stylish and enthralling as anything that came before or after. Its director, fittingly one of noir’s most influential godfathers: the intimidatingly monocled, larger than life, Austrian-born Fritz Lang.

Detective Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the suicide of a cop in his department, but uncovers holes in the widow’s story. Pressured from above to look no further, he bullheadedly forges forward, even when the investigation falls out of his jurisdiction.

Interestingly, Bannion’s character can be viewed in two very different lights. On the one hand, he’s the righteous cop who fights for right and seeks justice at any cost. But then again, his self-righteousness and arrogant fury leads to many bad decisions and get a lot of innocent people (all women) killed. He’s a deeply flawed hero, at best.

The scenes in which Bannion spends time at home with his wife and daughter reflect some of what has now become a somewhat stereotypical view of the 1950s: wholesome, familial, suburban. This domestic atmosphere stands in sharp contrast to the corruption and seediness that permeates the film, and the two worlds are played against each other, and eventually meet with sudden and shocking violence in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

The film is packed with innumerable great supporting characters, though I’d call special attention to a particular pair. Lee Marvin captivates as the mob’s top enforcer, a ruthless tough guy who’s not above throwing scalding coffee into his girlfriend Debby’s face. That role belongs to Gloria Grahame, whose wounded princess of a character turns to Bannion and wins the audience’s sympathy and even affection, for her story is perhaps even more compelling than the leading man’s.

In watching The Big Heat, I could see traces of its influence in other films and popular culture. A death-dealing car bomb is echoed in a similar scene in The Godfather. Willis Bouchey plays a memorable role as Bannion’s boss, a police lieutenant whose vocal delivery seems absolutely prescient of J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson (both actors hail from Michigan). Debby’s bubbly mob girl seems to have influenced villain Harley Quinn of the noir-drenched Batman: The Animated Series (her dichotomous disfigurement also bears resemblance to pre-existing Bat-villain Two-Face, though I assume this similarity is coincidental). And as I mentioned before, many elements of the film’s plot — self-destructive lone wolf cops, police corruption, turning in badges — have of course become cop movie staples. Take, for example, this week’s Two Cents pick, Witness.

With a crackling script, great performances, effective scenes of violence, contempt for the cheery lie of happy 1950s suburbia, and more than one way to read its narrative and protagonist (straightforward on the surface, but darker the more you think about it), The Big Heat is a noir masterpiece from a filmmaker who pioneered — and then perfected — the genre.

The Package

Twilight Time originally released The Big Heat on Blu-ray in 2012. That popular edition sold out, so four years later we’re getting an encore edition. The original disc had only a trailer and isolated score for bonus features, but this new discs has some significant additions including a commentary track.

I’m quite fond of the package design. The new edition boasts new cover artwork which references the film’s most ruthless scene, as well as the usual Twilight Time presentation of an 8-page booklet by Julie Kirgo and transparent (white) Elite Blu-ray case.

Special Features and Extras

In addition to a trailer and commentary track by Twilight Time team, this disc features chats with a pair of cherished contemporary filmmakers on the influence of The Big Heat.

Michael Mann on The Big Heat (10:57)

Martin Scorsese on The Big Heat (5:48)

Theatrical Trailer (1:43)

Audio Commentary with Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman
 A new commentary, recorded by the Twilight Time gang in January of 2016. It’s a chatty mix of criticism, thematic discussion, and appreciation for the film’s many great performers. Very insightful and easy to listen to.

A/V Out.

The Big Heat is available from Twilight Time.

Get it at Amazon:
 The Big Heat [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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