The Big Heat (1953) – A Movie Review

This is film noir has Glenn Ford as homicide detective, Dave Bannion in a city where mob boss Mike Lagana controls the police department all the way up to police commissioner Higgins.  When one of the crooked cops, Tom Duncan, has a change of heart and kills himself, leaving a file with all the details of the police corruption, his not so grieving widow Bertha hides the file and tells Lagana that she wants to keep getting money or she’ll have the file released to the newspapers.

Dave Bannion is assigned the Duncan suicide but when he starts sniffing around Duncan’s life, he finds that the supposedly honest cop is involved with a lot of shady people.  Dave’s boss Lieutenant Ted Wilks, gets pressure from the Commissioner’s office to stop digging into the case but Dave refuses.  Bannion finds that Duncan had a barfly girlfriend named Lucy Chapman who tells him that Duncan was unhappy in his marriage and felt guilty about being a crooked cop.  Unfortunately, Lucy is overheard talking to Bannion by one of Lagana’s men and she ends up tortured and killed by his henchmen.

Now Bannion is sure that Lagana is responsible for Duncan’s and Chapman’s deaths and he confronts Lagana at his palatial home.  After roughing up Lagana’s bodyguard and threatening the mob boss he leaves and the next day is dressed down by Wilks who has been ordered to stop Bannion from continuing with the crusade.

The next night when Dave gets home his wife is killed by a bomb that was planted in his car and was meant for him.  After moving his young daughter to his sister-in-law’s home under police protection Bannion returns to work where Wilks and Higgins try to persuade him to let the department solve the murder of his wife.  Bannion as much as accuses Higgins of being Lagana’s stooge and Higgins demands his badge and gun.  Bannion gives him his badge but says the gun is his own and when Higgins warns him not to use it, he replies, “I won’t use it until I find my wife’s murderers.”

Lagana has a hood named Vince Stone, played with mad dog panache by Lee Marvin.  Vince and another hood Larry Gordon are handling the Duncan problem for Lagana.  Living with Vince is his girlfriend Debby Marsh played by the alluring Gloria Grahame.  She is the comic relief while Vince and Larry are berated by Lagana over the bungling way they committed the murders of Lucy Chapman and Bannion’s wife.

The rest of the plot revolves around Bannion digging into the murder of his wife and the fallout from this search.  Because an election is going on Lagana warns Vince and Larry to be discrete in public so when Bannion confronts them at a bar Vince and Larry leave the bar in full flight and Debby Marsh gets left behind.  She becomes fascinated by this cop who is able to send Vince scurrying away and follows Bannion back to his hotel.  But Debby doesn’t provide any information for Bannion and he insults her romantic advances so she leaves.

But that is the fuse that drives the story to its conclusion.  One of Vince’s boys followed Debby back to Bannion’s hotel and when she lies to Vince about where she was, he flies into a jealous rage and throws boiling coffee at her, hideously scarring one side of her face.

Realizing that her life is in danger Debby runs away from the hospital where she had received treatment for her burns and calls on Bannion at his hotel room.  He agrees to hide her and she provides information on who was responsible for his wife’s murder, Larry.  Bannion goes after Larry and beats the truth out of him about the murders and the Duncan case.  Bannion then tells Larry that he better run because Bannion will tell Lagana where he got his information.  And sure enough, when Larry does run Vince catches up to him and kills him.

Now Bannion knows about Bertha Duncan’s arrangement with Lagana and he pays a visit to her and threatens to kill her because he knows that her death will automatically trigger the release of Duncan’s file to the newspapers.  But he is interrupted by a police detail that Lagana sent to her house as protection against Bannion.

Meanwhile the protective police patrol at Bannion’s sister-in-law’s house is called off by Lagana and Bannion hurries there to find that his brother-in-law has called in the help of his old army buddies to protect the house and in fact Lieutenant Wilks and one of the other detectives have volunteered to guard the building on their own.

Meanwhile, Debby Marsh decides to go over to Bertha Duncan’s house and being a crook’s girlfriend, she decides that it is her place to kill Bertha Duncan and, in that way, put an end to Lagana and his mob.  After shooting Duncan she heads to Vince’s penthouse apartment and hiding in the dark she throws scalding hot coffee in her boyfriend’s face and gloats about it.  He shoots her a few times and right then Bannion shows up and backs Vince onto the terrace with his own gunfire.  He calls the police and ambulance and then goes out and shoots it out with Vince.  But when Vince runs out of bullets Bannion beats him down and hands him over to the police and comforts Debby as she succumbs to the gunshot wounds.

The movie ends with Dave Bannion back at the homicide squad doing his job.

I would describe this movie as a melodrama.  The emotional strings are being pulled pretty hard.  A likeable police officer with a pretty young wife and little daughter see’s his wife killed in front of his eyes by a bomb meant for him.  You couldn’t come up with a scenario more fraught with pathos.

But it works.  In fact, this was Glenn Ford’s sweet spot.  This kind of average good guy in an impossible situation was what he did best.  So, this works.  I’m not saying there aren’t a couple of spots where you yell at the screen, “Oh come on!”  But the movie is enjoyable and the audience gets the payoff it expects.  Ford is heroically vengeful.  Marvin is delightfully vicious and Grahame is comic and tragic at the same time.

This isn’t a perfect movie but it’s good of its type.  I recommend it for fans of film noir and fans of Glenn Ford.

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