The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
Homicide detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is an honest cop who investigates the death of fellow officer Tom Duncan. It would seem to be an open-and-shut case, suicide brought on by ill health. Bannion, however, is contacted by the late cop's mistress, Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), who claims it could not have been suicide. From her, Bannion learns that the Duncans had a second home which would not have been possible on his salary.
A story of corrupted officials, bandits, and cops might not be the most surprising plot for a film noir but when director Fritz Lang indulges his touch we are in for a treat. The Big Heat is often cited as Lang’s best effort in Hollywood and as being one of the most important film noir of all times. Even if at the time of its release it was not praise by his contemporary critics, the movie is in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress since 2011.
Many recurrent themes of Lang’s storytelling are present especially the death of a wife and vengeance are some of the most important. Opening with a suicide and then filled two scenes of violence against women, this is one of the most brutal films of its time. With Lee Marvin as the very convincing Vince Stone, there’s a nice sense of right and wrong against the star and righteous Dave (Ford). As read in a biography on Lang, there’s rumor that Lang killed his first wife Lisa Rosenthal with Thea Von Harbou, his mistress at the time, and he often worked with the themes of mistresses and the assassination of a spouse in his films.
On the side of the form, Lang had to work with lower budgets in Hollywood since his reputation was great in Europe and particularly in Germany. In the USA he was regarded as a difficult director. He however managed to shot a very nice looking film with interesting camera movements swooping into dialogues and zooming on particular elements. While being more or less visible, his signature is mastered and his influence is major even if not cited as often as Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks.
Like the late Andrew Sarris, who ranked Fritz Lang into his select club of Pantheon directors, every film directed by Lang has lots to offer technically but more importantly in his manner to tell a story. A great master that amaze me at every new film I discover how fresh and intelligent his films are. The Big Heat is a great example of the best that Lang directed in America.