The Big Heat (1953)

2011 #8
Fritz Lang | 86 mins | TV | 15

The Big HeatFritz Lang is probably best remembered for the films he made in Germany; medium-defining classics like Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Metropolis, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse and M — I’d certainly heard of him in the context of those films long before I realised he’d emigrated to America and produced several noirs — but now, I’m increasingly discovering his American output is nothing to be sniffed at.

The Big Heat is, I believe, considered one of the best. It’s also still rated 15, which feels unusual for an American film of this era (I have no statistical information if it is or not, but remember US films were still under the Production Code at this point), and though the BBFC provide no more details, once you’ve seen it you can see why.

It’s rather grim and very violent, to be blunt. Even if most of the violence is off screen, it’s still described in fair detail — and most of it’s against women too. Indeed, I think the only on-screen deaths are female. Lang adds intensity to this mix, a quiet sort of tension (though I feel there may’ve been room for even more of this). It becomes clear that this is a tale where anything could — and does — happen; where it is, for once, genuinely true that no one is safe. The plot’s fairly straightforward — no big reveals here — This photo is all kinds of winbut it does manage what might be described as twists in how far it’s willing to go — mainly, who gets killed and how.

The cast are excellent. Glenn Ford is a suitably square-jawed lead; Alexander Scourby a detestable gentleman-villain; Lee Marvin a truly brutal thug. The best part goes to Gloria Grahame however, in a role that moves from a ditzy minor broad to so much more. In the performance stakes, it’s certainly her film.

I think I have more affection for Ministry of Fear (it’s barmy, especially all that palaver with the cake), but as a straight, hard-edged noir, The Big Heat looks tough to beat.

4 out of 5

The Big Heat merited an honourable mention on my list of The Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

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