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"A tension between placid surface and hidden corruption structures The Big Heat, and the drama deals with a struggle between those forces which try to keep the lid on and those which want to force the hidden violence out into the open" (Tom Gunning). Discuss this claim in relation to the film. Somebody's going to pay... because he forgot to kill me, this was the tagline featured on the poster for Fritz Lang's dark film noir classic The Big Heat which establishes the films undercurrents of violence and revenge. The plot places the films lone uncompromising homicide detective Dave Bannion, played by Glen Ford, in direct opposition to a society corrupt at almost every level, ranging from the mob to the police department itself. The films themes of corruption, violence, vengeance and individual struggle are seamlessly expressed through Lang's use of economical storytelling, expressionistic lighting, unrelenting performances, costumes and use of set and d'ecor.
The Big Heat takes its place amongst a plethora of contemporary films dealing in similar concepts of widespread social corruption, focusing especially on the prevalence of organized crime in America, from the smallest of towns to the greatest metropolis's. Notable films include The Enforcer from 1951, Robert Wise's The Captive City (1952), Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City (1952 and 1955 respectively), Jospeh Lewis' The Big Combo (1955) and Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A. of 1961. The Big Heat from 1953 emerges as the darkest of these films. The historical context the film was produced in is hinted at within the film itself when crime boss Lagana alludes to actual life Mobster Lucky Luciano, fearing his clash with Bannion might lead him toward "the same ditch with the Lucky Luciano's". In discussing surfaces in The Big Heat it is important to emphasize the films literal fascination with surfaces, human faces, lighting, locations, etc. Perhaps the scene that the film is best known for is where gangster moll Debby Marsh, played by Gloria Graham, has a pot of boiling hot coffee splashed across her face by the sadistic thug Vince Stone, played by Lee Marvin.
The result is that Debby's face is terribly disfigured, a literal destruction of a surface. However, the act actually transforms Debby from a simple bimbo into the film's heroine. Her previous character relied on good looks to charm her way into money, her main occupation being shopping. These good looks were merely a surface and deceiving, her inside actually vacant and manipulative. With the destruction of those good looks she is forced to reevaluate herself as a person, which leads her eventually to confront the evil forces she once consorted with. Vince Stone on the other hand, played by the rather dashing Lee Marvin, is preoccupied with destroying surfaces.
The darkness within him boils outward with destructive zeal, first he not only murders Tom Duncan's ex-mistress Lucy Chapman after she approaches Bannion, but brutally tortures her by burning her with cigarette buttes. Burning turns out to be Stone's favorite form of destruction, he burns a woman's hand at a bar with his cigarette and of course, splashes hot coffee on the face Debby. In the end, the situation is equalized when Debby splashes Stone's face with hot coffee, thereby forcibly manifesting his inner brutality and ugliness to the surface. Other surfaces prove to be equally deceptive. Bertha Duncan for example, wife of deceased police sergeant Tom Duncan, is the films desexualized femme fatale. She holds her dead husband in a state of callous disregard and seems only interested in money, wealth and greed.
As Lucy Chapman, Tom Duncan's mistress, states, "The only difference between me and Bertha Duncan is that I work at being a B-girl and she has a wedding ring and a marriage certificate". Bertha is visually attached to Lucy's murder as after Bannion leaves the Duncan household from his questioning session the scene ends with Bertha looking through the curtains of the window and from there the image dissolves into a detailed report of Lucy's murder being printed for both the audience and Bannion to see.A trend in Film Noir throughout the 50's was to bring it out of the dark alleyways and hidden parts of massive cities it occupied in the 1940's and place it menacingly closer to respectable life . Criminals and corruption is not simply posed in opposition to the law but rather as part and parcel. Lagana controls elections and has the highest echelons of the law enforcement leadership cadre under his pay roll. The costumes worn by the criminals in The Big Heat are generally nice suits of good quality, not shabby trench coats and what not. Lagana is not simply some mindless killer on the loose, neither is his influence restricted to solely the underworld, but rather he controls elections, lives in a luxurious house surrounded by civic authorities of all kinds whom he wines and dines. His home is opulent, seemingly respectable but it really is only his wealth and not his moral character which provides him with such a home.
The same goes for Vince Stone, who lives in relative luxury but is indeed a sadistic murderer and criminal. The setting of Stone's worst crime makes it even more gruesome, for when he attacks Debby with scalding hot coffee he is not in some seedy brothel or alleyway, but in a swanky, upscale urban home. To make matters worse, the commissioner of police is in the room with him and does absolutely nothing. Stylistically, the things that came to characterize earlier incarnations of Noir are used sparingly in The Big Heat, for example: off-angle compositions, low-key lighting and night-for-night photography. The Big Heat has a special preoccupation with the family which Jans B. Wagner of Bright Lights Film Journal argues, "the visual style of The Big Heat accentuates the positive characterization of the institution of family, while simultaneously presenting family life as helpless against the forces of evil surrounding it".
Dave Bannion's family is portrayed as a peaceful retreat from the outside world, Mrs. Bannion is a supportive housewife who helps him with his steak and beer. The sequences involving the full Bannion family are shot in classical Hollywood style, with minimal, natural shadows in the dining room and kitchen created by high-key lighting, however outside the home the night is impenetrably black, perhaps foreboding something dark . Unfortunately, she is destroyed by outside forces which have been stirred up by Bannion's early uncompromising moralistic nature and his aggressive masculinity . Following an obscene, threatening phone call made by a thug of the crime boss Mike Lagana to his wife, Bannion storms into Lagana's private residence, beats up his body guard and starts making accusations. As a result, a car bomb that was meant for Dave kills his wife instead.
After her death in an especially poignant scene Dave returns to his empty house one last time, all the warmth gone and we see the barren reality that was always behind the American family. However, whilst the family seems to be the only incorruptible unit, if one looks at the institution as it relates to the Duncan family. Police sergeant Tom Duncan is driven by the shame of his own corruption to kill himself and in doing so leaves a suicide confessional note explaining illicit relations between Lagana and the police department. The Duncan family is indeed deeply corrupt, as Bertha Duncan, now a widow, removes the note herself and uses it to blackmail Lagana. Bertha's duplicity is expressed visually when prior to an interview with Bannion she is shown at the beginning of a sequence making herself up before a three-paned mirror so as to look like a grieving widow. As well, Tom Duncan himself carried on at least four known extra-marital affairs if not more as Dave Bannion would find out. Lagana uses the family as a facade for his hidden criminal empire, his daughter is mentioned but never seen and no mention is made of a wife, Lagana uses the sanctity of the family in post-war American culture as a cover up for his corrupt inner workings. Therefore the family in The Big Heat serves as a good example of how hidden corrupt structures cause tensions and can eventually destroy placid surfaces or even create superficial ones.
In some ways the family plays a dubious role in the life of Dave Bannion, between the man and his work. Whilst Katie is supportive of Dave, it is only when she is out of the way and his daughter safely distant that Dave is unfettered in his relentless pursuit to destroy the Lagana syndicate. Even men who Bannion tries to get some answers out of refuse to do so because they fear harm coming to their families. This is a common theme in American film, especially the Western where men are afraid that domesticity will cause them to become tamed and unable to act with authority. In The Big Heat not only does the destruction of the family cause Bannion to more aggressively pursue Lagana and his henchman but it actually enables him to do so. The dark world Bannion enters into following the death of his wife is expressed visually when the bright, well lit home front which represents family life and domesticity is replaced by the darker hotel room with a liqueur bottle on the dresser, somewhat reminiscent of James Cagney's hotel room in Scarlet street, an earlier Fritz Lang film.
In conclusion, within The Big Sleep there definitely exists a major tension between placid surfaces and the structures of corruption beneath them. This certainly exists within the characters themselves, Bannion a moralistic cop but with a vengeful darkside, Debby, a disfigured bimbo but who achieves redemption at the end, Stone and Lagana, well dressed highly connected members of respectable society but horrid criminals behind the scenes. As well, the family plays a crucial role in The Big Heat. Not only is it shown as a last bastion of purity, but also as a facade, or else something that cannot escape from the insidious corruption that seems to contaminate every facet of society. In the final scene of the film, Bannion is not shown trying to rebuild his family life with his daughter but rather he is back at the department heading out to solve another murder... the battle continues.
In a black irony the final line of the film is, "keep the coffee hot, Hugo".BibliographyTracey, Grant, 10 Shades Of Noir: The Big Heat, Images Online Film Journal Vol. 2, www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/infocus/bigheat.htm, accessed May 18, 2005www.filmsite.org/bigh.html accessed May 18 2005Wager, Jans B., Percolating Paranoia, Bright Lights Film Journal Vol. 1, www.brightlightsjournal.com accessed May 18 2005.
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