BFI Classics: The Big Heat

 Author: Colin McArthur

Made in 1953, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat is not a film one immediately thinks of when looking at Fritz Lang’s Hollywood films after he fled Germany in 1933 (after a good 15 years of making some of the most enduring films of the German silent years – not least of all Metropolis (1926) and M (1931), both of which are covered in the BFI Classic books and reviewed on this website). By including the film in this series of books, McArthur has re-canonised it. The Big Heat is a later entry in the gangster and thriller sub-genre of film noir. It’s the story of a cop, Dave Bannion (played by Glenn Ford), who’s investigating the supposed suicide of another cop who he suspects is in the pay of a gang boss. His investigations draw him into the business of corrupt cops and gangsters which leads to a car bomb killing his wife, whilst being intended for Bannion. He then begins his own descent into vengeance.

In his introduction McArthur sets out how he has laid out the chapters of the book. He begins with comparing the book to the film and the aesthetic decisions that went into the script changes, something termed in layperson terms as ‘cinematic license’. This delineation helps the viewer understand why scriptwriter Sydney Boehm and Lang made certain changes, such as the omission of a black character (described in the book as a “negro”) and certain elements that could have brought the wrath of the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities) down upon Columbia Pictures in an industry already struggling under heavy censorship and political scrutiny). Needless to say, some of the more overtly sexual references are largely withdrawn from the film (although Gloria Grahame as the gangster’s moll is a very alluring femme-fatale). What he fails to set out is why some of the characters’ names have changed; probably not important anyhow. The next chapter is the most interesting. It’s largely about how Columbia Pictures came to bring the film to the screen and sets it in the context of how healthy the studio, and Hollywood, was in 1953. This is suitably followed by a short chapter on the film’s critical reception, about the mixed reviews it received on its release and how violent it was seen by a contemporary audience (Lee Marvin as one of the toughies is a particularly violent character). However, in Chapter 4, McArthur gives a personal account of when he first saw the film before losing many a reader by delving into the complexities of film analysis and structuralism that seems inappropriate here. Do we really need to know the politics of the British Film Institute in the 1960s when McArthur started working for them? It takes a long time for him to get to a point and when he does its something of a damp squib.

In the longest chapter in the book he returns to the film as text and gets below the surface of the film, analysing its subtexts and Lang’s filmmaking style and art (I had begun wondering why up this point Lang was being ignored as the auteur of The Big Heat). He studies perhaps the best known scene in the film – the scene in which Marvin (as the violent mobster Stone) throws scalding coffee into Grahame’s face, scarring one side of her face. McArthur makes an interesting observation here as he correctly asserts that the ugly and attractive sides of her face now reflect the two sides of Bannion’s personality, before he makes a redemptive conversion back to being the good cop.

It’s good to see this film included in the BFI Classics series.

Chris Hick

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