Home Movies: The Big Heat

Though I review movies for a living, I try not to recommend movies to other people too often, even movies I like. Maybe especially movies I like. Because when someone urges something on me — “You have to see it!” — the imperative brings with it a sense of duty. I have to see it. And few things kill the pleasure of entertainment like a sense of duty. It’s why Mark Twain defined a classic as a book that everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read.

So I’m not going to tell you to hit your couch post-haste and watch the Fritz Lang noir classic The Big Heat. (I’m not even going to mention the fact that Lang made Metropolis and M, two films of significant significance, before really hitting his stride with tight American noirs like this one.) Nobody told me to watch it, so there was no sense of duty to dampen my delight. I stumbled on it while poking around on YouTube.

I’ve stumbled on a lot of my favorite movies. Not necessarily the movies I think are the best, but the ones that delight me most. Part of it, I’m sure, comes from the way I encountered them: with that sense of private discovery. I can’t really argue with people who say that Whit Stillman’s Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco are better films than Metropolitan, his debut effort. But I saw Metropolitan when it opened in a tiny, near-empty theater in Ithaca, New York, and it felt like a revelation. I’d never heard of it, hadn’t read any reviews. Just decided to give it a try, based partly, I’ll admit, on the delightful poster font. And suddenly, I was listening to a teenage New York sophisticate saying, “Our generation is probably the worst since the Protestant Reformation.” Hoo!

But I will speak a word on The Big Heat’s behalf, starting with the women. The Big Heat came out in 1953. You know, back before women were people. Except the women in The Big Heat are people, much more so than a lot of the talent that shows up onscreen in crime dramas today. Jocelyn Brando, who plays Glenn Ford’s wife, isn’t his caretaker or his homemaker or his comforter or his conscience or his love interest. She’s all of those, because she’s his partner. (It shows in the way she takes a sip of his drink without asking. It shows in other ways, too.) And she’s just one of the four women who make this story move. Throughout, Ford is just playing catch-up; it’s the ladies who know what’s what. Besides his wife, there’s one who is wicked, one who is terrified, and one who is too smart for her own good (but still very smart).

The one who’s terrified? She ends up dead. She was tortured first. The coroner asks Ford if he noticed the cigarette burns on her body. “Yes, I did,” he replies. “Every single one of them.” Again, this is 1953, back when the Hays code turned every spicy element in a film into tapioca. Or maybe not. You can see a lot more onscreen today, I’ll grant. But there’s a suicide about one inch out of frame that opens the film, and it’s plenty jarring. Though not as jarring as a particularly nasty assault by Lee Marvin about two-thirds of the way in. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Marvin is unsettling to watch; it’s clear that violence is second nature to him. Ford has to be driven to it, which is also unsettling — and riveting. You don’t have to see The Big Heat. But you might enjoy it if you did.

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