Thursday, September 13, 2012

"The Big Heat"

This is another of the Lighthouse's noir films. Directed by Fritz Lang, it tells the story of an honest cop who will not let go of a case and keeps pursuing it at terrible cost to his career and family. The film begins with the death of a policeman, an apparent suicide. But when a shady lady shows up and tells the investigating detective that the dead man must have been murdered, he is initially dismissive, until she shows up dead on the side of the road. After that he keeps pushing at the case, despite the opposition of his bosses, ultimately being sacked from the force when he accuses the commissioner of corruption.

The film is not a whodunit as such - at the same time as the cop pursues his investigations we see the criminals (a nasty bunch including a particularly thuggish character played by Lee Marvin) reacting to him and deciding on counter measures. There is still an element of mystery to proceedings - what exactly was the dead cop's relationship to the criminals and why are they now paying off his widow?

I think of noir films as often having morally compromised protagonists. In this one, the cop's only fault is almost an unyielding adherence to a moral code, no matter what the cost to himself or those around him. His pursuit of the case makes him an unwitting agent of death to those around him, but it does not stop him, he keeps going until he has broken the criminals. But it still feels like a morally grey world rather than one of simple good and evil. His corrupted police friends come good in the end, just about, and ladies of easy virtue provide the leads that keep the case moving, albeit at terrible personal cost. Even the people who do not help the hero are often described as acting out of fear rather than malice or venal self-interest.

One stylised element I liked in this was the way the city it was set in remained unnamed. That might have served other purposes (like preventing the good burghers of any city it was set in from complaining about their town being portrayed as run by the mob). But it had the effect of making the film feel like it was set in some kind of Everycity USA, giving the action a surreal and mythic quality.

As I left the cinema I overheard two women talking about how sexist the film had been. At one level I can see where they are coming from - if you are a woman character in this film then your prospects are not great. On the other hand, there seemed a real depth to the women characters. If you take the two shady ladies who help the cop, they both seem to have more going on than just being the kind of Stereotype Noir Shady Lady one associates with the genre. This seemed to make all the more reprehensible the endless re-use of thinly drawn, interchangeable women characters in the noir-influenced comics of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. And OK, so maybe in The Big Heat the action is driven by men, but you probably did not get so many women detectives or crime bosses in the 1950s.

After seeing Fritz Lang's silent crime drama Dr Mabuse - der Spieler in the IFI a while ago, I now think of Lang as the crime master. I hope some of Dublin's cinemas show more of his work in this area.

Incidentally, there are some nice, probably unintentional links from this film backwards and forwards to others. At one point when the cop is in a seedy nightclub, we hear a band playing the 'Blame it on Mame' song that Rita Hayworth sings in Gilda. And later, when one of the women characters is dying in the cop's arms, she says "I'm dying, Dave", in a voice that seems oddly similar to that of Hal in 2001. Coincidence?


An inuit panda production


Charlene said...

Great film, one of the best! Really enjoyed reading your article. And agree that it isn't sexist. In fact, I think it's one of the least sexist noirs I can think of. Gloria Grahame's character starts off shallow and flighty but seizes complete control of the situation by the end of the film and it's she who gets things sorted by the end of the film.

ian said...

Sorry for non-reply. Thanks for the comment, we are in agreement.

Did you see Mildred Pierce? Now that is one for unstoppable women characters (and male characters who are all either sleazy or drippy, or both).