Beginning today, on the first Friday of every month, this column by critic Joshua Polanski will feature a short review or essay on a film directed by Fritz Lang (1890-1976), the great Austrian “Master of Darkness.” Occasionally (but not too occasionally), Fritz on Fridays will also feature interviews and conversations with relevant critics, scholars and filmmakers about Lang’s influence and filmography.
The most memorable and lasting film from Fritz Lang’s Hollywood career, The Big Heat (1953), opens with a close-up of a pistol — a distinctly American image for the Austrian émigré — that a cop, sitting at his desk as if in deep thought, picks up to kill himself. Then, in typical Langian fashion, a grandfather clock sets into motion the ticking clock to solve the suicide.
Approaching its 70th anniversary next week, The Big Heat is a pessimistic, mordacious, even feral film in the late style of the great director — a style that will become more recognizable as this column continues. One won’t find either a protagonist or virtue in Lang’s best-known Hollywood picture, only a man driven by the murder of his spouse into a fully immersive bout of utilitarian revenge.
The dead cop, named Tom Duncan, knew something he shouldn’t have and, for some reason or another, couldn’t do anything about it. Homicide detective Dave Bannion, played by a cunning, vengeful and mono-minded Glenn Ford, is visibly and emotionally troubled by the case even before his wife is killed in a car bomb meant for him. Taken down by one death after another, the women near Bannion find themselves endangered through mere proximity. His desire to mete revenge, lightly cloaked in the excusable language of justice, comes with a disregard for due process, the safety of his witnesses and even boundaries. Ford tinges his Bannion with a contradictory grief-dazed calculatedness. The family-man do-good cop subtly finds himself staring into an unfillable void when a bomb rips his family from him. Writer William P. McGivern’s serial turned novel (and Lang’s adaptation of the source material) knows any attempt to remedy grief with bloodshed will only devolve into existential and possibly even spiritual dejection.
In one of the most famous scenes in Lang’s career, mob boss and abusive partner Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) burns girlfriend Debby Marsh (the ever-captivating Gloria Grahame) with scorching coffee, disfiguring her face. Like Lang himself, who was blinded in one eye in the First World War and always wore an eyepatch, Marsh covers one of her eyes with a bandage — and, also (allegedly) like Lang, she murders her partner. (Lang tried to hide the fact that he was first married to Lisa Rosenthal, who died from a suspicious, single gunshot in 1920, supposedly after walking in on Lang and his soon-to-be second-wife, Thea Von Harbou, having sex).
Marsh descends into passionate murder only after Grahame gives one of the most emotive (and moving) performances I’ve encountered so far in a Lang film, one of the few times an actor (and not the direction) takes full command of one of his pictures. It’s easy to root for Marsh even as she discards her life’s potential in the very same act. She delivers the justice toward which Bannion has been meticulously moving for the entire film, allowing him to escape the consequences — perhaps like the Master of Darkness’s own alleged murder.
The opening image of the gun may be the most stereotypically American image in the entire film (and 70 years later, it might even be more quintessentially American), but Lang is just as concerned with many of the same themes he was in his earlier and more renowned German period. In M and Metropolis, two of the greatest films ever made, Lang laments the traditional means through which justice is exercised. Adapting to his new context in North America, he transfers dissatisfaction from the courts, the law and the state to rogue soldiers of justice and the “good guy with the gun.” It’s a very ideologically revealing, though easily missable moment, when Bennion’s revenge-coated glasses force his superiors to strip him of his gun and his badge, the semiotic codes representing police authority. Bannion refuses to pass on his gun, a weapon he purchased on his own accord. That gun, and his intention to use it, is his alone.
The consequences of using that gun could never be confined to Bannion alone, though. Those can be pawned off to others, and to women in particular, thanks to the corrupt systems that govern modern societies.
The Big Heat celebrates the 70th anniversary of its release on October 14, 2023.
Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen, amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, and East Asian & Middle Eastern film. He is currently based in Akron, Ohio.