Originally published in CTEQ: Annotations on Film no. 2, 1996, pp. 7-9. It appears here with minor corrections. Republished with the permission of the author and the Melbourne Cinémathèque.
When a police official suicides, he leaves behind evidence implicating crime boss, Lagana. The evidence passes to his widow, Bertha, who blackmails Lagana and deflects the investigation by grimly righteous detective Bannion. The torture and death of the dead man’s lover causes Bannion to investigate further, against the instruction of his superior, Wilks. The law is controlled by the law breakers; Wilks’ superiors are in league with Lagana. When Bannion’s domestic bliss is disturbed by a menacing phone call, he retaliates by invading Lagana’s domestic bliss.
By this action he exceeds his role as law officer, destabilises the order of things and precipitates an inexorable succession of violence, atrocity and death. His wife dies horribly in an explosion intended for him. Contemptuous of the police commissioner’s duplicity, he quits the force and goes his implacable way to do justice on his own terms. His little daughter is cared for by relatives whose domesticity becomes an armed camp. Step by step Bannion is led to Vince, Lagana’s sadistic enforcer. Vince enjoys domesticity with glamorous Debby, a mixture of tough and vulnerable, impulsive and “wise”. She is attracted to Bannion, and turns to him when she is disfigured by Vince’s cruelty. In a bleak hotel room, surrounded by danger, Bannion and Debby share a shadowy parody of domesticity. Inevitably, the downfall of Lagana depends on the disclosure of Bertha’s evidence. Who will sacrifice his/her own life to kill Bertha – the brutal, priggish crusader or the whore with a heart of brass?
Paradoxical as it may seem, this hardboiled cop film with formulaic elements, unflagging pace, escalating tension and vivid depiction of both physical and emotional ferocity is primarily an intellectual meditation on an age-old dilemma.
Throughout a 40-year career of writing (usually in uncredited collaboration) and directing for the screen, Fritz Lang’s films repeatedly turn upon ironic contrast of public with private retribution of wrong. Both miscarry justice, in different ways. What emerges is his concern not to question the right of retribution but to measure its cost. His philosophical field is civics, not ethics.
A generation after The Big Heat American film and television became saturated with dramas about police officers who, frustrated by corruption or protocol, break the law in order to uphold it. When Dirty Harry tortures a suspect to save the life of a hostage or declines to arrest a victim who has murdered her rapists, the spectator is confronted with an articulated contemporary problem, open to remedy. Lang’s narratives of vengeance carry no such liberal baggage. His strongest films do not offer dramatically engineered solutions but artistically crystallised contemplations of eternal dilemmas: we cannot have perfect justice yet we continue to desire it; public justice is blind but private justice is self-defeating; “natural” justice and “cultural” justice often conflict, and which should have the greater sanction?
William P. McGivern’s novel, The Big Heat, is a model of strictly causal narrative progression. Character and issue interlock. The emotional impulse aroused in the reader and the momentum of cause and effect are mutually fortifying. His concern is with contemporary America; underlying his pessimistic view of corruption in high places is faith in democratic ideals.
Sidney Boehm’s screenplay is a model of concise dramatisation and swift narrative. The novelist’s political concern is stripped back, his ideology discarded (1). Plot machinery stands out starkly, psychological cross-hatching – echoes, reversals, ambiguities, ironies – either implicit or succinctly foregrounded (the cop protecting the mobster’s mansion and the car bomb assassin can both plead “I do what I’m told”; the gangster’s moll tells the cop’s widow “We’re sisters under the mink”). Only in the scenes of Bannion’s domestic bliss does this sinewy narrative lose some of its muscle tone, and much of the blame here lies with Daniele Amfitheatrof’s obtrusive clichéd music.
Fritz Lang’s direction is based upon conventions of classical narrative cinema, but is exceptionally disciplined. His mise en scène uses perceptible (“arbitrary”) camera moves to explore dramatic space but favours unobtrusive (“motivated”) camera moves to adjust to characters’ moves. Lang is a master of the unobtrusive camera move, excelled perhaps only by Otto Preminger at his best (2). His crosscutting between singles is subject to a rigorous principle: the cut is used to mark a step in dramatic tension (“emphasis”), not for routine exchange of points of view (“phasis”). Lang prefers camera movement to phatic cutting. Hence much of the film’s dialogue is covered in group shots rather than singles.
The mise en scène of The Big Heat departs from classical orthodoxy in one significant respect: there are virtually no “privilege” shots There are moments which provide the spectator with access to the “inside” of a character, becoming complicit with the character’s will and emotion. Some can be well chosen reaction shots, others may be “curtain” shots (the wordless moment at the close of a scene) or “soliloquy” shots (moments of narrative arrest, when the character is isolated). The function of privilege shots is psychological; the spectator enters the dramatic illusion. In Walter Benjamin’s term, the spectator “penetrates” the character (3). Duration of the shot is an important factor; there are curtain shots of Bannion, for example, in his empty home and the first hotel room scene with Debby, but their duration is brief: they imply rather than confide; they do not penetrate.
Lang’s mise en scène allows detachment from, rather than involvement in, the narrative matter. However, he maintains dramatic illusion – an imperative of classical cinema – and the narrative matter is able to exert its own pull towards involvement. For some spectators Bannion’s impulse to “clean up” and Debby’s yearning to “get clean” overwhelm the director’s tendency to abstraction. Lang’s qualified abstraction is comparable to, but distinct from, the Brechtian principle of alienation, whereby the dramatic illusion is compromised and the spectator perceives the representation and the represented separately. Lang’s style (not always successful) neither merges nor separates the two fully but seeks a subtler dialectic than Brecht’s (4).
The spectator who yields to the illusion may be well satisfied with The Big Heat but has not engaged with Lang’s creation, merely accessed it to engage with the work of other creators, for example writer, cast, cinematographer, designer, etc.
To my eye the contribution of the cinematographer Charles Lang (no relation) is disappointing. The man who had lit Peter Ibbetson (1935), Shepherd of the Hills (1941) and Rope of Sand (1949) was capable of both splendour and delicacy yet The Big Heat is hard and shiny low-contrast stuff, with shadows but not Shadow, and fails to transform the blandness of Robert Peterson’s art direction. The Langs had worked together before on You and Me (1938) and I have to assume that the director, a meticulous user of light, wanted what he got.
There are many fine stylised performances. However, Gloria Grahame’s limited range of mannerisms makes the personality of Debby too schematised (was this Lang’s intention?). Howard Wendell plays the police commissioner as a pompous weakling out of romantic comedy (“Mr Dithers”) when the story needs a heavy counterweight to Alexander Scourby’s urbane Lagana.
Lang’s qualified abstraction displaces the film from easy classification by genre, theme, period or mode. The Big Heat is not essentially a policier; its central address is not to police practice. Depiction or quasi-documentation of police routine is incidental; and “sharing” in police values entails spectator resistance to the mise en scène. The Big Heat is not essentially a “problem drama”. Although remediable contemporary dilemmas constitute its armature, their principal function is to store the tension between the plies of the ages old dilemma, which is not remediable.
Of course, The Big Heat may be seen as a “symptom” of 1950s USA, and repays mythological analysis along Barthesian lines (5). By 1953 Senator Joe McCarthy had fluttered the establishment in its dovecote, and the merits of McCarthyism had come increasingly into question. Bannion can (and did) provide a timely analogue of the public perception of the Senator as graceless but passionately dedicated and unrelenting in his mission.
The casting of Willis Bouchey as Bannion’s vacillating superior, Wilks (“that leaning tower of jelly”), may have been fortuitous, given that 1953 was the first year of Eisenhower’s presidency. For the remainder of the decade this actor, who bore a clear resemblance to the President, played a succession of ineffectual authority figures, most memorably as a windy careerist in John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1958). Both sides of the McCarthy divide could mythologise Bannion and Wilks according to their needs. The Senator’s opponents saw him as a manipulative bully who scorned to count the human cost of his crusade. The more we respond to Lang’s mise en scène the more valid become the latter interpretations. The final words of the film, spoken by Bannion after he has been restored to his public role, might now reveal an appalling callousness in him (6).
The Big Heat is not film noir, though frequently cited as such. The film’s diegetic world is stable and knowable (albeit unlawful). The protagonist’s goal is clear; he is sure of his enemies and of himself, although his heroic self-reliance causes him to misperceive his helpers. Corruption abounds but he is impervious to it; treachery abounds but he is armed against it.
Bannion is a modern example of the “Herculean hero” (7), a recurrent figure in ancient and Renaissance art, one whose exceptional strength restores the public good but whose fits of holy rage sometimes destroy those close to him. Hence saviour becomes outcast (three years after The Big Heat John Ford exemplified the Herculean hero as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers ).
Five characters essential to the narrative are women, and one of them, Debby, is the only complex character in the film (Lagana is subtle but not complex). Debby is caught in the existential conflict between Self and Role. The anguish of the female trapped in a role is the central concern of melodrama – in this period of Hollywood. Debby’s anguish is essential but not central to The Big Heat. The film partakes of both film noir and melodrama but is not part of either, unless these terms have become so attenuated that are useless as tools of analysis. A psychoanalytic reading of The Big Heat would reveal further dimensions: the sublimation of “virtue” and “vice”, patriarchy at war with itself, the invisibility of Lagana’s empire, domesticity as the site of menace, cruelty and death.
Not one of my favourite films, but its whole is greater than the sum of its readings.
1. The following year Boehm wrote a script based on another McGivern novel, Rogue Cop (1954). Roy Rowland’s mise en scène is more moody and expressive than Lang’s, but has no “psychic distance” from the narrative matter.
2. Preminger’s masterpiece in this technique is Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), also a drama about a rogue cop.
3. See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, New York, 1968, pp. 217-51.
4. The Hollywood films in which Lang comes closest to Brecht are You and Me, a comedy with songs (one by Kurt Weill), and Rancho Notorious (1952), a Western with a similar storyline to The Big Heat. At Lang’s invitation Brecht wrote the original draft of Hangmen Also Die (1943).
5. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, Jonathan Cape, London, 1972. In Barthes’ terminology, myth is not the same as allegory.
6. This is not a forced reading of Lang. As early as 1931 he mythologised the politics of anti-Semitism and Weimar in M, his first sound film.
7. See Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero, Clarke Irwin, Toronto, 1962.