Friday, January 14, 2011

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

It's always a shock for me to see some of Glenn Ford's darker performances. I mean, my image of Ford is as Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent's dad in the 1978 Superman, and there are a lot of other movies that reinforce that image of the wholesome American dad. I don't know anything about Ford's biography, so I don't know how true it was to the man, but it doesn't matter, I guess. When I see Ford in something like 3:10 to Yuma or Gilda (surely one of the most homoerotic films of Hollywood's golden age), I get a case of cognitive dissonance. This is NOT the Glenn Ford I'm comfortable with, but he's certainly a lot more interesting. The film that really plays up this duality is Fritz Lang's brutal noir, The Big Heat, from 1953.

You get both sides of the coin in The Big Heat: the devoted father and family man, and the cold, relentless cop out for vengeance. The movie even codes it with its leading ladies. The light side is Jocelyn Brando's devoted, doomed wifey, while the dark is Gloria Grahame's gangster's moll (who, herself, has an interesting level of duality, one made physically manifest in the course of the movie). There's so much emphasis on dichotomies that it almost obscures the fact that the movie isn't so cut and dry. The Big Heat is good at hiding its hand.

The Big Heat is such an interesting movie that I don't really know where to start exploring, but maybe this will do. At some point during its running time, I told my long suffering partner that it was directed by the same man who made Metropolis. She looked at me with some level of disbelief, and I can understand why. The Big Heat doesn't have anything approaching the grandiosity of Lang's silent films, and it dials down the expressionism into a kind of flat deadpan. Oh, it's still there--this is built on the bones of film noir--but it's almost like Lang left the most baroque kinds of expressionism in Germany when he emigrated. What IS left is an interesting adaptation of the kind of free moving camera that Murnau pioneered in The Last Laugh and Sunrise. Where the camera actually is and where it moves to is more important than the shot composition. There's an excellent example late in the film, when Ford's character employs the disabled woman from the scrap yard to act as a stalking horse. The camera movements are precise, pulling back from the doorframe conversation between the woman and the thug Ford is after to show the geography of where Ford is in relation. It's a small moment, but it's done so expertly that it creates a subliminal forward motion to the narrative. In this cinematic model, the cinematographer is subordinate to the editor rather than a driving force in the meaning of the film. The effect on the narrative of the film is profound, and The Big Heat seems a LOT shorter than it actually is.

The story in the movie finds Ford playing Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, investigating the apparent suicide of a fellow cop. The dead cop's wife has made an arrangement with the local crime lord regarding her husband's suicide note (a package for the district attorney detailing all the dirty dealings), and Ford gets a whiff of it once he talks to the dead cops's mistress. Unfortunately, none of this goes unnoticed, and the criminals overreact. First, they use their influence in the department and with a crooked police commissioner to try to get Bannion to lay off. Then they start harassing his family, culminating in a car bomb that kills Bannion's wife. This kills something inside Bannion, and he swears a bitter revenge. Meanwhile, there's a parallel story going on, in which the syndicate's number two man crosses a line with his girlfriend. These two are played by Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame. It ends badly for both, with Marvin's character throwing a pot of scalding water into his girlfriend's face, and with her, in turn, becoming motivated to bring down the whole organization. She eventually turns to Bannion.

Grahame gets pride of place among the distaff members of the cast, playing a femme fatale of sorts, though one whose spiral downward is toward the light. That's one of the many interesting contradictions in this movie. Grahame's Debbie Marsh inverts the usual formula of melodrama, in which her embitterment over the infliction of deformity upon her is ultimately redemptive. The visual at the end of the movie, when she reveals her scalded face to her boyfriend, is striking. She is metaphorically and literally two-faced at this point (I won't speculate as to whether her character is inspired by the Batman villain, but the parallels are certainly there). Interestingly enough, Ford's character is Debbie Marsh's mirror image. His path to redemption comes from a descent into hell and he's only redeemed when his path crosses hers, someone going the other direction.

This is a surprisingly brutal movie, but that's not unusual for noir films from this period. Its turn toward the grotesque toward the end goes a bit farther than most of its contemporaries, though, an effect compounded by the film's habit of filming close-ups a little TOO close for comfort. There's an intimacy in this movie that belies its hard-boiled story. Even bits of business speak to that: when Bannion's wife takes a drag on his cigarette, when Debbie tells Vince that "he'll do," when crime lord Mike Lagana holds a dance for his teen-age daughter, when Ford accidentally destroys his daughter's toy castle, when Ford's brother-in-law enlists his army buddies as bodyguards. This is a lived-in movie. One gets the sense of characters whose lives extend off the screen. You also get a feeling of communities in conflict. The police are a society here, as are the criminals--they're ethnically coded, too, though I'm not going to suggest anything about that--and the struggle between them is almost ideological.

Oh, and it's a hell of a ripping yarn. My partner came in late, but was righteously hooked when she did. She doesn't normally care for film noir, so I'll take that as being significant. In addition to being a good film, it's a good story. That's a potent combination.


Deborah said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this. It's been in my "recently viewed; unreviewed" pile for almost a year. It's a complicated movie that I couldn't quite get my arms around reviewing. It's so sexy, and you're right, lived in, and the darkness goes all off in odd directions.

(BTW, I'm pretty sure Batman's Two-Face dates back to the 1930s.)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Deborah.

According to Wikipedia, Two-Face first appeared in 1942. So if there's an influence it runs downhill. I seem to remember a Dick Tracy character that was similar, as well, though his villains were a catalog of deformities that blur together.

But, yes. complicated and sexy and all kinds of awesome.