[box cover]

The Big Heat (1953)

After the mysterious suicide of a prominent police detective, tough-as-nails Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is assigned to investigate the delicate matter, since homicide is his turf. Interviewing the officer's widow (Jeanette Nolan), the case appears open-and-shut, as she claims her husband was suffering from poor health. But when a mysterious woman meets up with Bannion and tells him something's not on the up-and-up, only to wind up dead hours later, Bannion figures local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is calling the shots. Bannion confronts Lagana, but Police Commissioner Higgi (Howard Wendell) straps a leash on him. It's only when Lagana goes after Bannion's family that the detective quits the force and starts a one-man war against corruption — putting the muscle on hired gun Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), finding an unlikely ally in Stone's girl Debby (Gloria Grahame), and trying to uncover the "big heat" that's put the itch on every trigger-finger in town. Fritz Lang's 1953 The Big Heat is among the most celebrated of all films noir, although in some ways the moniker is inaccurate. Rather than offering shady protagonists who conspire to bring about their own pessimistic ends (as with Double Indemnity, Detour, and Kiss Me Deadly), Lang's picture is very much a crime movie with a revenge plot, and at its center is a steadfast hero — Bannion is a good cop, and he quits the force to pursue his deeply ingrained ideals of justice; even as a rogue agent, he never stops doing his job. Rather, The Big Heat ranks in the noir pantheon due to its locale and style. The hero may not be corrupt, but corruption surrounds him at every turn — from seedy bars to a gangster's mansion to the police department itself — creating a bleak urban landscape that has no use for heroes. Lang, the German Expressionist pioneer, envelops the film with his distinctive sense of light and shadow, although he also is able to convey subtle warmth when necessary (particularly in the middle-class Bannion homestead). Ford is a strong lead, and he's complemented by a marvelous supporting crew, including Alexander Scourby as the upper-class mobster Lagana, Gloria Grahame as the gun-moll with a heart of gold, and a young Lee Marvin as the psychotic Vince Stone, a vicious killer with a taste for hurting women. Throw in some memorable noir metaphors ("The only thing between her and the gutter was an empty suitcase"), and this treat from the "violence cinema" genre remains as entertaining today as it's ever been. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of The Big Heat features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a source print that offers vivid low-contrast details, although there is the expected level of flecking for a film that has not been restored. Audio is in the original mono (DD 2.0), and a French track and an array of subtitles are on board. The few extra features include bonus trailers and a gallery of lobby cards. Essential for noir fans. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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