Film Noir Series: The Big Heat (1953)

by tigermanifesto


Fritz Lang, a veteran of German Expressionism and the architect of such lynchpins of film history as Metropolis and M, emigrated to the United States. One of his most celebrated American-period films is The Big Heat, probably the most brutal and visceral of the films we’ve seen so far. Besides this intensified degree of violence, however, the most important changes I detected were in the way it deals with the subject of criminal activity. In order to make the distinction clear, I will specifically compare its treatment of criminality to that of Gun Crazy, the film we watched immediately prior to The Big Heat. 

In Gun Crazy, the criminal act as such is centered in the narrative, the focus of erotic charge and painstaking attention from the camera. Recall that the bank heist sequence in Joseph H. Lewis film takes place in the space of a single elaborately choreographed shot. Later on, the payroll theft operation at the Armour meatpacking plant gives the director occasion to show us lurid imagery so stark it could be called beautiful. Of course, the Freudian theory coursing through Gun Crazy gives it a tendency to fetishize and fixate on certain objects and events much as the characters fetishize and fixate on guns. For Annie Laurie Starr, the criminal act itself glows with a sexual pulse, while her male companion is more purely fascinated by firearms and the act of shooting. In any case, we see that, for the characters in this story, the act of killing and the act of theft are the focus, the activity that drives the plot forward.

The Big Heat, by contrast, is concerned with the moral outrage of its protagonist not only against particular criminal acts, which are not glamorized whatsoever, but against the entrenched criminality of his entire milieu. Spectators are shocked when Mrs. Bannion is killed by a car bomb and Vince Stone scalding his girlfriend’s face with hot coffee, and we to an extent revel in Sgt. Bannion’s hotblooded revenge-seeking, but the focus is not on this but on pervasive corruption. Its criminals are not expressionistic figures subjected to intense psychological analysis. While The Big Heat retains some of the noir style in its night scenes and intense, claustrophobic framing, it is concerned not so much with the interior weakness and motivations of its criminal element as in their moral hollowness, their willingness to sell anything and anyone for money. While it remains optimistic that it is only individuals who are corrupt rather than whole institutions–note how Sgt. Bannion retakes his old post, having never even removed his nameplate from his desk–its narrative is concerned not with weak and irrational agents consumed by gun-lust but rather matter-of-fact businessmen acting in their own rational self-interest. Their unsavory methods are presented as sharp shocks at the moment, but the overall picture we get is that these more spectacular displays of violence are merely evidence of the mundane workings of organized crime, whose trappings may be glamorous and whose means might evince terror but whose raison d’être is no different from that of any other capitalist organization.