THE BIG HEAT, 1953
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando
Dave Bannion is an upright but unscrupulous cop on the trail of a vicious gang he suspects holds power over the police force. Bannion is tipped off after a colleague's suicide and his fellow officers' suspicious silence lead him to believe that they are on the gangsters' payroll. When a bomb meant for him kills his wife instead, Bannion becomes a furious force of vengeance and justice, aided along the way by the gangster's spurned girlfriend Debbie. As Bannion and Debbie fall further and further into the Gangland's insidious and brutal trap, they must use any means necessary (including murder) to get to the truth.
“I do what I’m told.” So says the cop on detail to Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford). In the world of “The Big Heat,” people follow orders regardless of the consequences. Except Dave Bannion. Having been assigned to the case of cop Tom Duncan, who has been found dead at his desk, Bannion accepts that it must have been a suicide. The cop’s widow , Bertha (Jeanette Nolan), tells him that Tom had been secretly ill and that is the reason he killed himself. However, the audience is privy to information that Bannion does not have. We see Bertha as she calmly calls Mike Lagana, the boss gangster, and informs him of her husband’s demise. Later on, we see her sitting at her vanity like an actress. Bannion knocks at the door and she starts up the waterworks in honor of her “beloved” husband.
Bannion is trusting and has no reason to doubt Bertha’s story. That is, until he receives a phone call from Lucy Chapman, who asks him to meet her at a bar lounge called “The Retreat.” It is important to note that Bannion is in the midst of dinner with his wife when he takes the call from Lucy. He is a family man who values his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando) and her role as a homemaker. The cut to “The Retreat” shows a different lifestyle and how different Lucy is compared to Katie. Bannion becomes suspicious now of the suicide ruling and seeks to find the truth about Tom’s death.
Finally, the rising action of the story begins. Bannion is relentless in his pursuit of the truth and refuses to follow orders: the latter is what separates him from the rest of the characters. He gets in hot water with his boss when he refuses to back down and do what he’s told. A gangster named Larry, part of Lagana’s crew, states “I just take orders” when told that he has screwed up. Like the cop I quoted at the beginning of this review, who “does what he’s told,” Larry takes orders and does not have enough virtue to stand up for his own beliefs.
While not everything goes Bannion’s way, he never sacrifices his principles. He is disgusted by the blood money that has allowed Lagana to live a life of luxury and won’t let up on the gangster’s trail. Even when Lagana sends him a message, hoping to scare him off, Bannion does not back down. Usually this type of stubbornness in a character might seem unrealistic. We might expect Bannion to “give in” and escape from Lagana’s crew while he is (mostly) unscathed. However, Glenn Ford brings a naturalness to his character so that every move he makes is believable. And despite his quest for revenge against Lagana and his crew, Bannion retains a sensitive side (seen in his relationship with Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame).
There are a few moments in the film that would normally be deemed melodramatic; however, I found these moments to be rightfully shocking. Since the plot is very straightforward and contains no narrative twists, the dramatic moments feel truly visceral (one moment in particular seems like an homage to “The Public Enemy” with more serious repercussions). In fact, we respond emotionally because we know more than the characters. Dramatic irony goes a long way in supplying the right amount of tension.
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