The story coheres around the suicide of a crooked cop, and the subsequent struggle of an honest detective, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), to navigate between a corrupt city government and a ruthless mobster to uncover the truth. Initially, the violence here seems almost timid by comparison to the more explicit carnage now commonplace in films, yet the story accelerates as its plot arcs toward Bannion's showdown with kingpin Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his psychotic henchman, the sadistic Vince Stone, given an indelible nastiness by Lee Marvin. When Bannion's wife is killed by a car bomb intended for the detective, both the hero and the story go ballistic: suspended from the force, he embarks on a crusade of revenge that suggests a template for Charles Bronson's Death Wish films, each step pushing Lagana and Stone toward a showdown. Bodies drop, dominoes tumbled by the escalating war between the obsessed Bannion and his increasingly vicious adversaries.
Lang's disciplined visual design and the performances (especially those of Ford, Marvin, Jeanette Nolan as the dead cop's scheming widow, and Gloria Grahame as Marvin's girlfriend) enable the film to transcend formula, as do several memorable action scenes--when an enraged Marvin hurls scalding coffee at the feisty Debby (Grahame), we're both shattered by the violence of his attack, and aware that he's shifted the balance of power. --Sam Sutherland
But is Lang retelling the story of what happened in Germany, or is he warning his adopted country what could happen if people didn't challenge authority (here the police department, including the commissioner) that had been corrupted by a criminal leader? Maybe both.
The Big Heat is violent even compared to today's films and more believable than most. However one thing that jars today is the effeminacy of the crime boss, Mike Lagana, used as shorthand to show his corruption.
We first see Lagana in bed in silk pajamas with his bodyguard (in his robe) standing over Lagana, handing him the phone, lighting his cigarette. When Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), the homicide detective who won't follow orders and leave Lagana alone, barges into Lagana's mansion to confront him about a cop's suicide, Lagana is under a huge portrait of his dead mother ("We lived together in this house"). Even from beyond the grave you can feel the mother's unhealthy influence on her son. Lagana mentions his daughter but never his wife.
For the most part you can tell the criminals from the decent people because the criminals dress better. Gloria Grahame's Debby Marsh, girlfriend of the vicious killer Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), tells the blackmailing wife of a policeman who was on the take, "We're sisters under the mink."
Debby and the cop's wife are just one pair of doubles in the movie. There's also Debby and Katie, Dave Bannion's wife.Read more ›