These notes accompany the screenings of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat on June 6, 7, and 8 in Theater 3.
Fritz Lang (1890–1976) found his American sea legs with You Only Live Once (1937). In successive years, he adapted the themes of violence and fate that dominated his German films to more prosaic milieus than those provided by Richard Wagner, a futuristic metropolis, the Moon, or the bizarre Berlin underworld. During this period, Lang actually made three Westerns (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, and the highly stylized Rancho Notorious), and he enthusiastically met his obligations to his new nation with commendable anti-Nazi films like Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die, and Ministry of Fear. As America emerged from the war era, however, Lang was able to discover a fertile homegrown landscape for his particular paranoia. The America of his imagination in The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, and Clash by Night was cheesy and corrupt, but his vision of violence and crime reached its fullest flowering in The Big Heat.
As Kim Newman has pointed out, the 1950s were a rich time for Hollywood movies about organized crime. This was, after all, the time of the televised Kefauver hearings. As with a similar cycle in the early 1930s, during the Cagney/Robinson/Muni era at Warner Brothers, these films were exploiting public interest in contemporary headlines, and The Big Heat seems to have had its own level of credibility. (As fanciful as Lang’s Mabuse films and M may appear to us now, they had a certain level of authenticity for German audiences of their time, although these same masses would shortly find value in the ravings of Adolph Hitler.) As film historian and director Gavin Lambert put it, “The basic material of The Big Heat resembles that of a score of American thrillers, but a personal imagination transforms it and relates it to the artist’s own created world…rich in symbols of evil prescience.”
In the years between You Only Live Once and The Big Heat, Lang’s approach seems to have changed. The “criminals” in the earlier film, the Clyde-and-Bonnie-like Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney, were presented sympathetically, with organized society, in the form of the police, out to get them. Even Peter Lorre’s child murderer in M, after all, had been given moments of pathos. In The Big Heat, however, Glenn Ford’s cop is the hero and victim of the criminals. What Lang is acknowledging is what critic Lotte Eisner refers to as his recognition of “the spread of corruption throughout society on both sides of the law.” Although he is motivated by revenge, Ford’s character has the purity of Siegfried in Die Nibelungen(1924) and, like Siegfried, he is contending with overpowering and menacing forces. It seems an open question as to whether the “big heat” (the police crackdown on crime) will be hot enough to contend with this menace.
In a sense, The Big Heat represents Lang at his most mature and persuasive. Thanks to a superior script by Sidney Boehm, there is a pervasive air of normality, and the characters have more depth and detail than is typical in Lang’s films. Lacking the visual nuance of the German films, his American works are more dependent on conventional virtues of plausibility, and the director is immensely assisted here by the performances of his actors. Glenn Ford was probably never better, and Lee Marvin, a decade before his switch to being a good guy, was about as bad as anyone could be. In spite of her Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, Gloria Grahame was one of the most underappreciated 1950s actresses. I can only echo what my late friend, George Morris, said of her performance for Lang: “Grahame proves once again that she has no peers in the petulant-slut department.”