Film: The Big Heat

The Big Heat is a 1953 Film Noir thriller, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Lee Marvin in one of his first big roles. Ford is police detective Dave Bannion, who investigates the suicide of another cop, Tom Duncan. Duncan's death is in fact a suicide, but his mistress, barfly Lucy Chapman, refuses to accept this and demands that Bannion investigate. Shortly thereafter Chapman is murdered — it turns out that Duncan was a crooked cop in deep with the local organized crime outfit, and said outfit is afraid of drawing attention from the cops. Bannion insists on investigating the Chapman murder, even when facing resistance from the police commissioner, who is in the mob's pocket. The mob retaliates by trying to kill Bannion, but they kill his wife by mistake. This turns Bannion into a One-Man Army bent on vengeance.

The Big Heat is considered a late-career highlight for its director, Fritz Lang. It has a place both on the National Film Registry and the Roger Ebert Great Movies List.


  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Debby kills Mrs. Duncan and brings down the titular big heat on the mob — sparing Bannion the need to do it.
  • Brainless Beauty: Initially, Debby's ditzy exterior makes her appear to be this. She sobers up quickly after the coffee incident.
  • Comforting Comforter: Bannion tucks in his little girl. Guess who's the next target for the mob?
  • Dark Mistress: Debby either doesn't realize or doesn't care that her boyfriend Vince is a violent psychopath. Until he turns on her, that is.
  • Death by Disfigurement: In the film's most famous scene, violent mob thug Vince Stone throws hot coffee in the face of his beautiful moll, Debby. Debby is left with one side of her face horribly scarred. She dies in the climactic shootout, but not before throwing hot coffee into Vince's face (and helping Bannion get him.)
  • Dirty Cop: The police department is ridden with corruption; the commissioner is one of Lagana's flunkies.
  • Disposable Woman: Gosh, isn't Mrs. Bannion sweet and nice and pretty? Too bad she has to get blown up by a car bomb just to give her husband extra motivation to get the bad guys.
  • The Dragon: Vince Stone is this to crime boss Mike Lagana. Stone is a brutal psychopath, in contrast to his more business-oriented boss.
  • Driven to Suicide: The first shot of the movie is Detective Tom Duncan shooting himself. His mistress later explains that he was driven by guilt due to his involvement with the mob.
  • Here We Go Again: The film ends with Bannion being called out on another case.
  • Hero Secret Service: After Bannion's wife is killed, a number of his ex-army friends guard his daughter.
  • It's Personal: Bannion's attitude after his wife gets killed.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Duncan's suicide really was suicide, and the cops didn't have anything else on the mob. If Lagana had simply left things alone rather than ordering the murder of Lucy Chapman, nothing bad would have happened to him.
    • Lagana actually points this out to Larry Gordon, the man who disposed of her in such a clumsy fashion. He also points out how idiotic it was to let Bannion's wife be the one to die in the car bomb, as it only made things personal for the detective.
  • The Mistress: Lucy Chapman, who, it turns out, loved Duncan a lot more than his wife did, and was encouraging him to get out of the crime business.
  • Pretty in Mink: A disfigured Debby, meeting Mrs. Duncan and observing that they are both wearing mink coats, says that they are "sisters under the same mink" who have benefited from association with gangsters. She then kills Mrs. Duncan in order to expose Lagana to the authorities.
  • Starts with a Suicide: The first shot of the film is Tom Duncan putting a bullet in his head. The plot unspools from there.
  • Title Drop: When Bannion realizes that killing Mrs. Duncan will bring down Lagana. See The Unfettered below.
    Bannion: With you dead, the big heat follows.
  • Turn in Your Badge: The corrupt police commissioner demands Bannion do this after realizing he won't be able to dissuade Bannion from investigating his wife's murder.
  • The Unfettered: Bannion is on the verge of becoming this. When he finds out that Mrs. Duncan is safeguarding her own life with her husband's incriminating letter, which she is keeping in a safe deposit box, he nearly murders her to cause the letter to be released. The cops arrive in time to stop him.