My 18-year-old cousin who joined me earlier for Summer with Monika, Pickup on South Street, and The Band Wagon (all in one day) popped in to watch The Big Heat with me. Seemed eager to join. Strained to arrange it over the course of several days through Instagram messenger. So he comes by, we order food, we both finish our meals within the first fifteen minutes of the movie and then, leaning back, he takes out his phone and casts maybe two or three glances at the screen for the movie’s duration. Starts looking at memes, laughing, interrupting to show them to me.
It’s fine. Even if he was really distracting me from the movie, I could always turn it on later to catch whatever I missed. He’s a cool guy and stayed fairly attentive with those first three movies we watched.
It was a little annoying, though, especially because the next movie on the List was supposed to be Gentleman Prefer Blondes but I skipped ahead to this one because, on top of noir being naturally more interesting to this kinda teenage boy than a screwball rom-com, it’s directed by Fritz Lang, whose earlier work with Metropolis and M. and Dr. Mabuse (we don’t speak about The Secret Beyond the Door) is really stylized and exciting and deals with crime in a gritty and interesting way that’d maybe prompt some conversation where I could get him to look at things in a new way.
M., Lang’s third feature on the List, came out in 1931 and, as the director’s first film to feature sound, shows a clear stylistic shift way from the visual motifs he’d been suing through the silent era. And I kinda resented that. Then in 1936 Josef Goebbles offered Lang a job developing films for the Nazi party and Lang hopped a train, bailing for Hollywood. Once he got out to LA he was treated with a kind of weirded-out deference: he was seen by colleagues as a kind of maverick craftsman, an artist, but his ideas were constantly rejected.
He did a few movies in America through the ‘30s and ‘40s but doesn’t turn up on the List again until The Secret Beyond the Door, which is stylish and smart but also, apart from feeling like a desperate imitation of Hitchcock, is almost cringingly obsessed with Freudian symbols.
So that was a disappointment too.
But The Big Heat isn’t. It’s a gritty noir with a good story, a brisk pace, and it’s considerably more violent than others on the List. It’s an interesting follow-up to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a portrait of how censorship is relaxing in Hollywood at this point.
Glenn Ford (which Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, refers to, puzzlingly, as a “poor man’s Spencer Tracy”) plays a cop who presses too hard on a mob boss, starts to expose a chain of police corruption, and then finds his wife murdered by a car bomb. And Ford’s really good here as the adoring family man turned vengeful stoic after his wife’s death.
Ford last appeared on the List in another T-Map notable, the noir masterpiece Gilda (my memory of which is blemished by the dismal public screening I hosted, to which only three people showed, two of them disliking each other), and Lang gives an affectionate nod to that movie by playing “Put the Blame on Mame”—the song Rita Hayworth sings in an iconic sultry way—when Ford goes busting heads at a local bar.
The best part of the movie is Gloria Graham in the part of a high-ranking mobster’s girlfriend whose brutalized to the point of disfigurement after somebody sees her cozying up to the rampaging Ford. After that we see her in grief over her shattered beauty, then we see her, alternately, tender and vengeful. She gets one of the big shocks of the movie by revealing her half-melted face at the movie’s climax and by pulling at rigger on somebody.
Legitimately jolting stuff,, even if the makeup constituting her burn scars isn’t so great—and that actually reminded me of Jack Pierce, the brilliant makeup artist behind Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, who would have done a great job here but who, at his peak int eh 1930s, would never have been allowed to make something really effective, censorship being what it was.
As for visually stylistic stuff: Lang doesn’t repeat his early thing with symmetrical shots and parallel lines all over the screen, like he did during the silent era, but he’s got this motif of boxes within boxes. I guess it’s supposed to reflect the narrative of conspiracy, of secret plots. That there’s a higher-up beyond the higher-up. So there’ll be doors with windows that, hanging ajar, perfectly frame some bit of background action.
It’s a good an engaging movie, built with a craftman’s eye for deatil and well-paced. Unremarkable, though. And I think the generic title is gonna have me confusing it with The Big Sleep and Force of Evil and other noir.
Still. If you’re looking for a good moody flick, this is your ticket.