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The Big Heat


#372 - The Big Heat
Fritz Lang, 1953



A detective investigating a colleague's suicide is drawn into a dangerous situation involving a collection of unsavoury underworld figures.

The Big Heat is a lean little film noir that, though it is rather enjoyable, doesn't leave a consistent favourable impression as a film with its reputation should. It starts off with an intriguing enough mystery as Glenn Ford's detective sergeant investigates the suicide of another officer - though it would seem to be an open-and-shut case, his probing investigation starts to lead to the bodies piling up and damage being done (especially to himself), but he soldiers on regardless, earning the interest of the moll (Gloria Grahame) of one of the gangsters (Lee Marvin) that he's pursuing. While The Big Heat doesn't exactly do anything wrong, it might actually suffer from decades' worth of imitators that do neuter the impact of this one considerably. Ford plays a familiar character type as an honest cop who pursues his suspect despite the apathy and corruption of his fellow officers plus the sheer brutality of the criminals he goes up against. As things progressively get worse and more personal, he loses touch with his calm demeanour and starts to become Marvin plays his usual salty self, becoming notorious for his thuggish inflicting of pain and disfigurement on any woman who irks him; this extends to Grahame as his long-suffering girlfriend, whose involvement with Ford's investigation and treatment by Marvin prompts her to do an about-face and become a more interesting character than Ford's fairly by-the-book character (both in terms of professional ethics and character development).

With a veteran director like Lang at the helm, The Big Heat has some good visuals but is ultimately stymied by its genre trappings. The second half is some solid work, but you do have to wade through the fairly pedestrian police procedural that is the first half in order to get to the truly fascinating elements. It's got some decent visuals and the odd piece of good dialogue, but there's not enough here to make me think it's anything more than alright (on its own terms, at least). I'm probably due for a re-watch at some point, but right now I'm inclined to think of it as the barest of essential viewing.