Fritz Lang can conjure up a paranoid thriller with the greatest of ease (actually, it's probably a lot of work, but it looks easy, which is a feat unto itself), and The Big Heat provides some of his classic paranoia to the proceedings of a story of a good, hard cop on the trail of a case that's gone way too corrupt. There are simple visual touches, amid what looks like a standard-shot thriller (when compared to, say, M, which is Godly in its vision of the darkness of humanity's layers peeled back). But it's got the kind of grit to it that most likely inspired Dirty Harry, even if, arguably, Glenn Ford isn't quite as great a star as Clint Eastwood. He's got a style to himself, anyway, like someone who is almost TOO good, and knows it, which is why he'll get the job done even if it means some busted knuckles and a few cracked heads. He's a compelling force as Dave Bannion, and he's perfectly cast against a bunch of sinister, slimy characters (save for the women, and even one of them is just rotten).
After a cop seems to have killed himself, the case looks open and shut. But there seems to be more for Bannion, as he didn't seem like a guy, from some accounts, to do himself in. Turns out there's a big cheese named Lagana who wants this put hush-hush like, and pays off the widow to keep a letter he wrote under wraps. But Bannion is suddenly put to the test, if only of himself, when his family is put in danger (with, of course, tragic results). Lang doesn't stop for a detail that isn't worthy of the attention of the narrative, and there's a connection that he makes between the world of the criminal underworld and the law: it's a place where there's some gray, but the black and white aspect rings through due to the situation at hand: corrupt cops, dirty criminals, and only a couple of dames to trust in the mix of it (one of them Debby, played in another great turn by Gloria Grahame, takes a savage incident with a pot of coffee via Lee Marvin's hand to wise up).
It might not have the depth of an M or Scarlett Street, but the Big Heat is about as solid a genre piece as one could ask for, getting more harrowing from the first gun shot of the picture all the way to the final moment when Bannion leaves the office for a hit-and-run case (a cop's work is never finished, one might suggest). It's also got more intelligence for its conventional roots with the little things; for example, there's a point in the movie where something pivotal could've happened with Bannion's daughter and the thugs, but Lang makes a good step to push aside it, keeping the focus squarely on the task at hand instead of sidestepping the climax into cliché. Land understands how, for the sake of a piece of pulp fiction like this, to keep the lines in order, even if it might seem standard for today: keep Bannion's family wholesome, maybe TOO wholesome, with stories of three little kittens, and keep the criminal elements savage, sinister in their grins and suits and violence brimming underneath.
One things for sure, it doesn't get much less thrilling than seeing Ford and Marvin in an unpredictable shoot-out. A+
The Big Heat
Action / Crime / Film-Noir / Thriller
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1 hr 29 min