German director Fritz Lang made two of the most influential movies ever: the police procedural M (1931) and the sci-fi dystopia Metropolis (1927). The Big Heat (1953) emerged in the latter part of his career, and while not as groundbreaking or as effective, it's an effective film noir.
Homicide detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), married with a young child, investigates the suicide of a police sergeant. The man's widow (Carolyn Jones) tells a suspicious story, and Bannion is led to a barfly (Doroth Green), who winds up dead after telling him the dead sergeant had planned to divorce his wife. Bannion digs deeper, discouraged at every turn by his lieutenent (Willis Bouchey) and the police commissioner (Howard Wendell). All signs point to the local kingpin, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who's got a floozy girlfriend, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Soon, the case hits Bannion close to home.
If you've seen any number of film noirs, you won't be surprised by anything in The Big Heat. The plot is stripped down to its most basic elements, and Lang doesn't linger on background details; he doesn't even try to hide the identities of the evil characters or offer red herrings. Bannion pieces together their involvement and works to prove their connections to the crime. There aren't really any twists or shocking revelations.
On one hand, this give the film momentum and a quick pace. The film is taut and lean. However, the movie is a little more straightforward and mainstream than you'd expect from a director of Lang's skill. The twisted psychology of M and the groundbreaking visuals of Metropolis have been replaced by a project that feels like a work-for-hire. It's done with aplomb and craft, but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from other noirs. I took similar issue with Orson Welles' The Stranger, although this is not as disappointing.
Lang still works some of his trademark touches. The corrupt intermingling of police and criminal elements hearkens back to his critique of Nazi power. Lagana is the behind-the-scenes mogul who controls everything and is set up as something of a postwar fascist. Police stand guard outside his mansion, and he learns all investigation details straight from the top. Although we never learn exactly what his criminal syndicate does, he mentions an upcoming election, suggesting he already controls the city in everything but name and is astute at manipulating public opinion. But in honesty, he's not as threatening as similar characters in Lang's other films. More dangerous is Stone, the type of guy who'd throw scalding coffee on his girlfriend's face when he finds out she went somewhere with a detective. Then again, he is played by Lee Marvin. It's through Stone, who in turn uses a network of thugs, blackmailers, and killers, that Lagana suppresses threats to his rule.
Toward the end, the film did move in an unexpected manner. The plot builds up Bannion as a tough, take-no-crap-from-anyone loose cannon, and yet SPOILER, the resolution comes from the actions of Debby, who transitions from a ditz to someone more aware of what's she's involved in to a woman of action. It's an unexpected characterization given the era, and it probably could have carried the entire movie. Since it occurs in the last 20 minutes or so, it feels a little rushed.END SPOILER That turn of events gives the movie a pretty unique edge for its time.
The Big Heat is an effective film noir and still holds up reasonably well. It does its job and does it with skill and speed, but there's not much more to it.