The ultimate filmic depiction of the term “just desserts” (assuming one enjoys their after-dinner treats with a cup of joe) THE BIG HEAT returns to Limited Edition Blu-Ray, courtesy of Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
We’re, of course, enthusiastically praising not only the joys of film noir, but, particularly, the merits of this 1953 seminal example of the genre at its peak. It’s sort of silly to explain the plot at length; I mean by now the movie is practically a part of our national culture. The Sydney Boehm screenplay (from the William P. McGivern Saturday Evening Post serial), wrapped around the standard scenario of a wronged dedicated cop out to smash the corrupt system, is typical noir fodder. The bizarre manner in which the loose ends are tied up is what gives THE BIG HEAT its jamocha punch. 110% of this hellish detour’s success belongs to the pic’s director – the near-mythic, equally hellish Fritz Lang.
What attracted Lang to the project is the one aspect of THE BIG HEAT that everyone remembers: the unusual deadly weapon that several characters are assaulted with. Granted, the big heat of the title can apply to the intensity of the widespread political corruption spread throughout the narrative…or the numerous instances of gunplay…or the fact that the lead’s wife gets fried in a car-bomb gone awry…For me, and, as I suspect, for Lang as well, the title refers to the use of cinema’s strangest lethal equalizer, the pre-cursor of Mr. Coffee.
Now, coffee as weaponry or simply a torture device certainly sounds unique; for Lang this was essentially business as usual. One must bear in mind that this was the same guy who terrified confused film producers with his idea for a horror movie wherein vampires came out of televised video receivers to conquer their human victims. While this is undoubtedly an outrageous premise, it becomes even more so when one realizes that the director suggested this to the boys at UFA in 1918 (thus beating the Japanese to The Ring by more than 80 years!). Then again, Lang is also the dude who, in cahoots with lover and future spouse Thea von Harbou, has always been suspected of murdering Lisa Rosenthal, his first wife…who later lived a Sunset Boulevard existence in semi-decay, regaling an ongoing barrage of starlets and hookers with his extreme sexual demands, while his Nurse Ratched-like attendant (brought over with him from Germany where, depending upon whom you believe, he A) escaped to freedom or B) turned down Nazi generosity from the talons of Adolf & Co.) presided over their nominal needs. That this crumbling no-nonsense health provider was later revealed to actually be Lang’s third wife, adds that extra spice to the already aberrant mix.
Bride number three, it should be noted, goes back to Lang’s obsession with Marlene Dietrich – which actually began before Marlene became Marlene, in 1922 when Fritz shot graphic full-frontal scenes of Anita Berber for Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Berber, who was, in essence, Dietrich’s role model, expired before the end of the decade, but UFA elders long recall Lang’s specific demands on what color to dye her pubic hair for these sequences, knowing all-too-well that they would be tossed into the refuse bin. Lang finally had his way with Marlene during the production of the 1952 western Rancho Notorious; it was a short-lived affair that Dietrich vehemently denied existed in that age-old tradition of “the lady doth protest too much.” Personal photos retrieved after the director’s passing showed much 1930s-era cavorting betwixt the Teutonic twosome…until closer examination revealed that the “Marlene” in the pix was really the soon-to-be long suffering nurse (an actress ironically christened with the big-heatish moniker of Lily Latte) before decades of abuse stole her looks, and, in all likelihood, a reasonable portion of her sanity. Their tale of one-sided unrequited love eerily resembles the exploits of the infamous Vampire of Dusseldorf, Peter Kurten, whose wife frequently accompanied him during his 1920s reign of terror – acting as his one-woman support group/mop-up crew. Claiming hundreds of victims before being caught and executed, Kurten was the template for the Peter Lorre character in Lang’s immortal 1931 masterpiece M.
By comparison, a bubbling pot of hot coffee in the puss almost seems a mild choice of vengeance…in fact, more like a capo’s cappuccino or a wicked designer latte on the rampage.
The non-liquid star of THE BIG HEAT is Glenn Ford – and he’s pretty good as the honest-to-the-point-of-maniacal flatfoot. Ford is sort of like a kinder, gentler version of the lunatic from Sidney Kingsley‘s Detective Story, but way less corny than the movie version’s Kirk Douglas. Ford, father of a remarkably normal little girl, is married to creepy Jocelyn Brando. My use of the word “creepy” is in no way a thumbs down critique of Ms. Brando’s adequate acting abilities…It’s just that…well, as the sister of the far more noted Marlon, she…how can I say it? SHE LOOKS LIKE BRANDO IN A DRESS AND WIG! I must shamefully confess that for years I told gullible movie-lovers that Jocelyn really didn’t exist – that she was Marlon’s alter ego…appearing in drag in a moderately successful second career. And they believed me. Brando does seem to satisfy the easily enraged Ford (another “heat” reference) – pacifying the copper with both her girl-next-door carnality and the ability to cook him meals featuring the biggest baked potatoes I’ve ever seen. Lang’s obvious contempt for the goody-goody wife is evidenced by her shocking firebomb death – shot in virtually the exact (to use a Brando-related term) method as Oliver Hardy lighting the stove in Blockheads.
THE BIG HEAT is filled to the brim with lust and passion; it’s a female-fueled sexual drama. Jeanette Nolan is the harpy wife of a deceased high-ranking police official who holds the local gangland hostage; she might be the movie’s strongest character if it wasn’t for the movie’s strongest character – nympho gun moll Debbie, brilliantly essayed by the magnificent Gloria Grahame in noir‘s most iconic siren performance. Hell surely hath no fury like a woman scorned – more so for a woman scalded. Grahame, who has the misfortune of being psycho-thug Lee Marvin’s squeeze, is the victim of a plethora of physical and verbal degradation, which, she often appears to actually crave. This was a bold undertaking for a 1953 movie. Although Deb has to pay the price, it’s still a bargain for viewers watching the decades-old production code seemingly evaporate as the 90-minute running time is unspooled. Grahame is not only the recipient of THE BIG HEAT‘s hottest and violent scene, she also has the best lines. “Whenever Vince [the Marvin character] talks business, I go out and get my legs waxed” she boasts to an unimpressed Ford. Evaluating the modest hotel room the now-ex-detective is resigned to living in, Grahame tosses off her apt evaluation, “Hmmm…I like it – early nothing.” Once disfigured by America’s favorite boiling beverage, bad girl Grahame in effect becomes Java-the-Slut, utilizing the taste treat to extract her own deliciously planned revenge.
We can’t say enough about Lee Marvin, either; THE BIG HEAT was a ground-breaking role for the actor, forever locking him into 1950s villainy. This is the first movie where the actor displays his patented hanging drop-jaw look (the Italian posters prominently feature him as some gangster version of Nosferatu). He has some nifty dialogue too; when describing Debbie to his cohorts, he tersely synopses her in a one-line knock-off: “Six days a week she shops – on the seventh she rests.”
So much of the dialogue was eyebrow-raising for the Howdy Doody generation. There is much discussion of psycho sex crimes (not surprisingly, a Lang-friendly topic) visually punctuated by pathetic hooker (here referred to as B-girl) Lucy Chapman’s (perennially sad actress Dorothy Green) ravaged nude corpse, which investigators are told was unearthed covered with “…cigarette burns on her body.” Then-starlet Carolyn Jones, too, becomes a subsequent human ashtray, or, to be blunt, a butt for butts. Obscene phone calls received by Brando (“…you can fill in the four-letter words”) comprise an audible event never before witnessed in American cinema with the possible off-camera participation of Henry Hathaway. And, finally, the murderous confrontation between Grahame and Nolan is succinctly and accurately encapsulated as a queen of the jungle battle of “…sisters under the mink.”
Alexander Scourby, the big boss of THE BIG HEAT, is fairly ineffectual in his reign – outclassed by the flick’s powerful women. A large portrait (presumably his mother, and, in actuality, actress Celia Lovsky from God-knows what other Columbia Picture) dominates his office; Scourby is nonetheless appropriately oily, much resembling fellow Columbia crime czar Morris Carnovsky in Dead Reckoning (with a tincture of Harry Cohn but a touch more finesse).
Lang’s reliance on heroic crippled dregs recalls his UFA period; again, here it’s a woman – actress Edith Evanson – a literal personification of a junkyard dog (she works in a city dump).
Much despised by his contemporaries (crews constantly devised ways to kill him, a popular plan being to drop a Klieg light on his head), Lang nevertheless did have some ardent supporters. Ford and Grahame would be reunited with the director the following year for an adaptation of Jean Renoir‘s 1938 thriller La Bete Humaine – released in 1954 as Human Desire. Sylvia Sidney adored him; after her death, the actress’s apartment was found to be littered with photos of Lang, the most prominent adorning her refrigerator. George Sanders was always ready to work with Fritz, as was Joan Bennett, who, along with husband, Walter Wanger, went into partnership with the director. Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea likewise followed suit.
Upon its release, THE BIG HEAT’s reception was, climate-wise, tepid; critics pegged it as a distasteful standard ground-out piece of claptrap; the movie-going public, always more savvy than the stale aging members of the Fifth Estate, saw the worth in the piece – making it a modest box-office favorite.
Lang, constantly on the forefront of technological advances, chose to record the movie in stereophonic sound (the tracks unfortunately now lost), which presumably underlined the gat usage, explosions and, no doubt, mocha-java sizzle (the aforementioned Human Desire would be one of the first Columbias in the new 1.85 widescreen process).
The 2012 TT Blu-Ray 4K-scan of THE BIG HEAT was hands-down the best copy I’ve ever seen – each Charles (no relation) Lang shot looking like a large format studio still. The soundtrack was crisp and dynamic (although I wish they’d have found that stereo!). The music is ho-hum, mostly relying upon the house themes arranged by nefarious Gower Gulch employee Mischa Bakaleinikoff. Actual original bits were composed by uncredited Henry Vars, auteur of Chained For Life, Love Slaves of the Amazon, The Leech Woman, House of the Damned and Flipper’s New Adventure (but admittedly also Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now and Frank Borzage’s China Doll). There are some nice nightclub accordion and guitar themes, so indicative of the decade, including a subtle homage to Ford via a rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame,” the song from his noir triumph with Rita Hayworth, Gilda. All of this is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track), if one feels the need for Lang-like desecration. That this terrific platter quickly sold out (becoming an eBay Big Bucks seller) is not surprising. Noir and HEAT fans can rejoice, as this new 2016 Encore edition retains the former superlative transfer; but there’s added incentive for purchasing the disc, as, unlike its earlier rendition, this redux comes with a stash of extras, including individual takes on the movie by Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, plus audio commentary by cine-historians Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs (natch, there’s the IST option and the 1953 trailer, the latter which graced the 2012 version).
The appeal of THE BIG HEAT grows more ravenous every year. It’s now deservedly considered one of the top noirs of all time. When, in eons past, I used to cite it as a humdinger, folks would respond to the title with a blasé “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Happily, the movie’s fame has now changed this reaction to Nescafe. But, you know, there’s an additional pensive perk to watching THE BIG HEAT that seems to transcend its genre roots. I sometimes think (perchance too hard) of the people that made it happen, a kind of Unholy Three covenant. I think of Lang in his twilight years, nearly blind, still guarded by Lily, his wizened Dietrich clone, carrying on one-sided talks with an ever-present toy sock monkey. He would sit in front of a non-vampire invading TV set, anxiously awaiting the next episode of his favorite show, Green Acres (he wasn’t alone – it was Orson Welles‘ favorite too). I think of Gloria Grahame, whose torrid affair with Nicholas Ray resulted in a pregnancy and loveless marriage – culminating with her seducing Ray’s teenage son (whom she later wed)…I think of Ford – for over a half century regaling listeners with his grueling account of being one of the first G.I.s to enter a concentration camp at World War II’s end – a shadowy life-changing tale that, after his demise, was shown to be a hoax (he served in the war, but never left the States). I wonder if he had ever realized that sensitive, somber, troubled Glenn Ford was the greatest performance of his career. Perhaps it’s just them – though THE BIG HEAT, more than any other mean-street movie, has always made me ponder about the dark side in all of us. Or maybe it’s all a load of crap…Hey, I could use a cup of coffee…I’ll take it noir…no milk…no cream…and not in the face.
THE BIG HEAT. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]. 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Cat # 8-11956-02100-7. SRP: $29.95.
Limited Edition of 3000; available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com] and Twilight Time [www.twilighttimemovies.com].