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The Big Heat


The Big Heat – 1953

220px-ThebigheatmpTheatrical release poster

The Big Heat is a 1953 film noir directed by Fritz Lang, starring Glenn FordGloria Grahame, and Lee Marvin. It is about a cop who takes on the crime syndicate that controls his city after the brutal murder of his beloved wife. The film was written by former crime reporter Sydney Boehm based on a serial by William P. McGivern which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, and was published as a novel in 1952. The film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011.


Homicide detective Sergeant Dave Bannion is an honest cop who investigates the death of fellow officer Tom Duncan. It would seem to be an open-and-shut case, suicide brought on by ill health. Bannion, however, is contacted by the late cop’s mistress, Lucy Chapman, who claims it could not have been suicide. From her, Bannion learns that the Duncans had a second home which would not have been possible on his salary.

Bannion visits Mrs. Duncan. He asks for particulars on the second home and she resents the implication. The next day Bannion gets a dressing-down by Lieutenant Ted Wilks, who is under pressure from “upstairs” to close the case.

Chapman is found dead after being tortured and covered with cigarette burns. Bannion investigates even though it is not his case or his jurisdiction. After receiving threatening calls to his home, he confronts Mike Lagana, the local mob boss. It’s an open secret that Lagana runs the city, even to the point that cops guard his house while his daughter hosts a party. Lagana is astounded by Bannion’s accusations in his own home: “I’ve seen some dummies in my time, but you’re in a class by yourself.”

Bannion finds that people are too scared to stand up to the crime syndicate. When warnings to Bannion go unheeded, his car is blown up and his wife Katie is killed in the explosion. Feeling that the department will do little to bring the murderers to justice, Bannion resigns and sets off on a one-man crusade to get Lagana and his second-in-command Vince Stone.

When Stone viciously “punishes” a girl in a nightclub — by burning her hand with a cigar butt — Bannion stands up to him by ordering Stone and a bodyguard out of the joint. This impresses Stone’s girlfriend, Debby Marsh. She tries to get friendly with Bannion, who keeps pointing out that she gets her money from a thief. Marsh states: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” As soon as Debby unwittingly reminds Bannion of his late wife, he sends her packing, to which she retorts: “Well, you’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs.”

Debby was seen with Bannion. When she returns to Stone’s penthouse, he accuses her of talking to Bannion about his activities and throws boiling coffee in her face. Debby is taken to hospital by none other than Police Commissioner Higgins, who was playing poker with Stone and his cronies at the flat. Higgins warns that he will have to file a report, but Stone reminds the commissioner that he is well-paid to deal with that sort of thing.

With her face disfigured, Debby returns to Bannion, who agrees to put her up for a while. Bannion gets information about a man who planted the dynamite that killed his wife. Debby identifies him as Larry Gordon, one of Stone’s associates. Bannion forces Gordon to admit to the bombing. The trouble began because Bertha Duncan, widow of the cop who committed suicide, has papers he collected that could expose Stone and Lagana. They were intended for the DA, but Mrs. Duncan kept them for herself and is collecting blackmail payments from Lagana.

Told by Debby that killing for revenge would make him no better than those who murdered his wife, Bannion refrains from killing Gordon, instead spreading the word that he talked. Gordon is murdered by Stone’s men. Bannion next confronts Mrs. Duncan, accusing her of betraying Chapman, causing her death and protecting Lagana and Stone “for the sake of a soft plush life.” But cops sent by Lagana make him leave.

Stone decides to kidnap Bannion’s little daughter Joyce, who is staying with an aunt and uncle with a police guard nearby. When the guard suddenly leaves, the uncle calls in a few army buddies to take over. Satisfied that she is in good hands, Bannion sets off to deal with Stone. On the way he meets Lieutenant Wilks, who is now prepared to make a stand against the mob, admitting that, in spite of his own wife’s pressure over what will happen to his pension, “It’s the first time in years I’ve breathed good clean air.”

Debby goes to see Mrs. Duncan. Noticing they are wearing the same expensive coats, she remarks that they are both “sisters under the mink” and have benefited from an association with gangsters. She then kills Mrs. Duncan, thus starting the process that will see Tom Duncan’s evidence surface and bring about Stone’s and Lagana’s downfall.

Stone returns to his penthouse. Debby throws boiling coffee at him, just as he had done to her. Stone shoots her, but after a short gun battle is captured by Bannion, who had followed him to the flat. As Debby lies dying, Bannion describes his late wife to her in terms of their relationship rather than the physical “police description” he gave earlier: “You and Katie would have gotten along fine,” he tells her.

Stone is arrested for murder. Duncan’s evidence is made public and Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted. Bannion returns to his job at Homicide.


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