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Film / The Big Heat

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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, which 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 Roger Ebert's Great Movies List.

No relation to the cop movie.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • Bloodless Carnage: The car explosion leaves no marks on Bannion's wife and there are no bullet wound or blood visible when Debby or Mrs. Duncan are shot in the back.
  • Brainless Beauty: Initially, Debby's ditzy exterior makes her appear to be this. She sobers up quickly after the coffee incident.
  • Censorship by Spelling: Bannion to his wife: "According to the book, you should lead her [the daughter] to B-E-D..."
  • Cigarette Burns: This seems to be Stone's preferred method of hurting people - Lucy Chapman's body was covered in burns, and Bannion watches him hurt another girl by stubbing out his cigar on her hand.
  • 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.
  • Dead Man's Switch: Mrs. Duncan's arranged to have her husband's suicide note sent to the press in the event of her death. When she does get killed, the published document brings down Lagana and his empire.
  • 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.
  • Double-Meaning Title:
    • The heat of the police putting pressure on the criminals.
    • The heat of the coffee (and its effects).
    • The heat of what happened to Bannion's car (and its effects)
    • Perhaps even the heat a relatively cool, easygoing guy like Bannion felt when pushed to his limits (the heat of the moment, the heat of passion).
  • 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.
  • Empty Cop Threat: Bannion tries to squeeze the bartender at The Retreat by threatening to take him downtown over the Chapman murder, but the bartender sneers that Bannion won't do that since Bannion's been told to stay away from the Chapman case.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Lagana keeps a portrait of his mother in his office and talks respectfully about her, though given that he says that she never got over her surprise that he became successful suggests that their relationship was rocky.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Bannion meets Lagana on the day the gangster is hosting a party for his teenage daughter. He says he's promised to stay out of her way the whole night.
  • External Combustion: The baddies try to kill Bannion this way but the plan gets thwarted when the wife gets into the car instead.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Mike Lagana.
  • Final Speech: Debby gets to have a talk with Bannion before passing on.
  • 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.
  • Impending Doom P.O.V.: When Vince comes home, the camera movies towards him from the dark implying that we watch him enter from Debby's point of view.
  • In the Back: How Debby gets killed by Vince.
  • It's Personal: Bannion's attitude after his wife gets killed.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Bannion applies physical pressure on Larry to make him talk.
  • Leave No Witnesses: Either Gordon or Stone had the mechanic who planted the bomb in Bannion's car killed to make sure Bannion couldn't connect it back to them or Lagana.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Debby decides to help Bannion after Vince disfigured her.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: When Bannion mentions that he wished he had killed Bertha Duncan when he had the chance, Debby notes that this would make him just as bad as Stone.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping: The barkeeper at the Retreat is cleaning glasses when Bannion comes to question him.
  • 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.
  • Stupid Crooks: Lagana chews out Larry Gordon for leaving Lucy's body to be found by the road and for accidentally killing Katie Bannion, rather than her husband.
  • There Are No Therapists: Bannion is left with no professional psychological support after the incident with his wife.
  • Taken Off the Case: Bannion is taken off the Lucy Chapman murder case because the police department he works for is hopelessly corrupt, with the commissioner himself in the pocket of the mobsters that killed Chapman. Bannion's lieutenant says the reason is that the Chapman case is a county matter, but Bannion brushes that away as a flimsy excuse.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Bannion doesn't kill anybody in the movie.
  • 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. The big heat for Lagana, for Stone and for all the rest of the lice.
  • Too Happy to Live: Bannion's wife.
  • 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.