The Big Heat, directed by Fritz Lang, is one of the better noirs of the ’50s, and has a couple of interesting twists. It features a stalwart, honest cop as protagonist, but to classify as noir he undergoes a change for the worst, and it turns the concept of the femme fatale on its head.
Glenn Ford stars as homicide Sgt. Dave Bannon. He’s a true blue family man, married to Jocelyn Brando (yes, Marlon’s sister) and has a young daughter. He’s almost hen-pecked at home, as Brando kind of bosses him around and he takes it good-naturedly.
The opening scene shows us a gun, and then, his head off-screen, a man puts a bullet into it. He’s a cop, and it’s ruled a suicide. But his scheming wife (Jeannette Nolan) takes his long, detailed suicide note, which relates how he was on the payroll of the local mob boss, Alexander Scourby. Nolan, who is not sad in the least about her husband’s death, now blackmails Scourby.
Ford is on the case, and even though it seems like an open and shut matter, he pursues it. He questions a woman who claims to have had an affair with the dead man, and when she turns up dead the next day, he knows he’s on to something. Then, when he doesn’t back down, his wife ends up blown to bits in a car he was meant to drive, which turns him into a revenge-seeking automaton. But the police commissioner, who is in Scourby’s pocket, warns him off revenge and Ford quits the force.
The other thread through the movie is that of Gloria Grahame, as a gangster’s moll. She’s the girl of Lee Marvin, Scourby’s number two. She’s very aware of Marvin’s cruelty (she watches impassively as he puts a cigarette out into the hand of a woman at the bar–Carolyn Jones, who would later play Morticia Addams). Something about Ford’s decency gets to her, and she follows him to his hotel. She’s followed, and Marvin takes cruel revenge on her. Now she’s fully on Ford’s side, and together they bring down the mob.
What makes this film interesting is twofold: one, Ford becomes the morally ambiguous hero after his wife is killed, and in fact becomes just as monstrous as those he is chasing. At the end, when he has a chance at cold-blooded murder, he demures, as I’m sure the Motion Picture Code demanded, but until that point it’s fascinating watching a guy who was known for family man roles play someone ruthless.
Secondly, Grahame is not a true femme fatale. She loves the life she leads–the furs, jewelry, etc.–but eventually becomes tired of being a doormat and, drawn to Ford’s code of honor, bucks Marvin. Unlike true femme fatales, she does not seduce Ford into corruption, he seduces her (chastely) out of it. He’s the one who leads people to death, an homme fatale, if you will. Almost every woman he comes in contact with, four in total, come to a violent death.
As with typical noir, and especially with Lang, who came from Germany, the film is full of touches that relate back to German expressionism and Citizen Kane, the proto-noir. There is chiaroscuro lighting and deep focus, plus a lot of the great patter of crime films, like “Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there” or “Well, you’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs.”