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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Kettle's Boiling!


Fritz Lang/Glenn Ford Tighten Screws in The Big Heat (1953)

This raised bars for screen ferocity as had White Heat a few years before and Kiss Of Death prior to that. Often it came down to a particularly brutal scene people would remember. For Kiss Of Death, it was Dick Widmark pushing an old lady down some stairs. Cagney did cold-blooded kill of train engineers before White Heat was five minutes in, and here was Lee Marvin in coffee clutch with Gloria Grahame, a moment still with capacity to shock. Censorship had relaxed since the war with regard violence, so much so that some states were back to individual banning of offending pics, as in Ohio with Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, one that seemed to revel in what it could get away with. The Big Heat, however, was less about bang-bang fun of cop/robber than alert to fact that "Vice, Dice, and Corruption" (poster copy) was accomplished truth of communities large or small, the Kefauver inquiry but a tip of icebergs enormous below surface of urban life.


Fritz Lang was far from first to screen-warn that organized thievery had taken over local government. This seemed a greater problem for everyday survival than abstract threat of Soviet spies infiltrating Washington and the military. Criminals were operating out of barber shops and yes, even theatre snack bars we attended. The Big Heat, like Captive City and others of the cycle, alerted us to scale of the problem. Ordinary folk like Glenn Ford and family are made to suffer when they interfere, the gangster threat for a first time coming into front yards of placid domesticity. Kefauver and his Crime Commission had warned: Play that slot machine in a local bar, and you lay welcome mat to thuggery. The Big Heat was Anytown, USA where takeover had been accomplished, Glenn Ford against pod people (he calls them "scared rabbits") asleep as corruption crept in and took over. Horrific truth was that this was happening, had happened, all around the country as The Big Heat went into release.


What small comfort there is to The Big Heat is knowing that once Glenn Ford cuts the head off a snake that is crime boss "Lagana," his city's problems will be over, but that wasn't case in 1953 viewer world where organized vice blurred state and county lines. Behead one snake and others would slither forward, like gi-ants in Them!, another parallel these doomsday crime pics had with science-fiction. A final scene Ford back on duty for a police force cleansed of corruption was reassuring fantasy, but patronage knew no such comfort in a real world where law enforcement was under siege by shadow employers who could and did pay better. Further "bad cop" noirs would follow The Big Heat, each with third act rout of corruption, and none convincing as to finality of that. Critic/historians have said The Big Heat was Fritz Lang's acid take on American life and institutions, but what's expressed here had been in the air since Congress and public awakening to fact of daily life that was organized crime.


The Big Heat was like westerns too, clearly defined good guy that is Glenn Ford against insidious source of all that is bad Alexander Scourby (as Lagana). In fact, Ford would topline a virtual frontier remake that was The Violent Men of a following year, Edward G. Robinson the period-set Lagana with Brain Keith his muscle help and counterpart to Lee Marvin from The Big Heat. Lang's direction was incidental to assets already on board, unless he redid the script, which I doubt was case. What he brought to The Big Heat was ease with notions of officialdom and plain folk being so easily bought by forces of evil. Guess Lang knew from time in Germany how readily a community, or nation, could absorb dark influence. It's him that makes what would have been a good picture great.


Glenn Ford as avenging angel was close as movies dared get to endorsement of vigilantism, his Dave Bannion several times at verge of finishing off rats he catches. Ford beautifully puts over a hate for crime that gives intensity to confrontation lacking in others who'd enforce law. We really expect him to go self-help route in disposal of vice vermin, the fact he'll relent being put down to Code brakes, but the idea was there and would fuller blossom when cops arrived in persons of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and like minds freed from restraint. Violence most shocking in The Big Heat is, of course, the coffee sling at Gloria Grahame by Lee Marvin, an act we don't actually see, though in hindsight, would swear we did. That has interestingly become the device by which The Big Heat is currently sold, reboot posters centering the steaming pot as shorthand for mayhem to be BH had. Whatever it takes to bring them in to a sixty-year old show, and besides, I was never impressed by 1953 ad art, Euro posters being much better, and so used when Greenbriar campus-ran The Big Heat. Now we're served our coffee with Blu-Ray, a bracing cup from Twilight Time and highly recommended.

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