In The Big Heat, Fritz Lang draws such a thin line between “civilization” and “savagery” that I begin to feel hoodwinked as I strain to keep it clear--and why should I? Glenn Ford’s Det. Bannion does not hesitate to step forward and rub out that line, his shoe marked with it, his voice as level as his little cleft chin thrust in the hood’s face like hot coffee, his mouth curled in a Creature’s grin--because everything he needs is gone, and all he has left is the cold comfort of something that looks like justice.
And just to make sure we get it, there’s Gloria Grahame, still alive but on the brink. I must confess I’ve been in love with her since It’s a Wonderful Life, her own chin sticking out, her mouth also curled--but like a little bow--the kind that shoots arrows. In The Big Heat she is more than a damsel in distress--I don’t know if Grahame could ever allow herself to be merely so--she gets close, yes, but her voice, as much as it almost whines, never surrenders her to idle tears. She becomes our surrogate--not Ford, who doesn’t need us, whom we must watch at a distance; get too close and he might take a swing at you.
And then the strange ending, as though God flips a switch and Ford becomes human again, the workaday cop keeping his paperwork in order. Lang wants us to walk with Bannion right into the den of thieves, with one big lug--played by someone named Lee Marvin as though he had no bones, loose and lank, his rubber-mask face swinging around the camera’s frame--reminding us what it looks like to be unrepentant. I’m not sure if Lang is warning us or simply observing; as George Orwell writes somewhere or other--describing some atrocious attitude only a tyrant’s minion could manage--“I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact.” Either way, though, it looks like we’re all alone, while the worst stick together--which comes in handy only when the good guy lobs a grenade.