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The revelations that crime in America had become a big business built on corruption at almost every level of U.S. life shocked millions and inspired Hollywood to a new type of gangster film in the fifties, one in which the average Joe took on the mobs against fantastic odds and won. Of all these films - which include Robert Wise's The Captive City and Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential (both 1952) - the best was German-born director Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953).
From almost the start of his career, Lang had depicted the criminal underworld in such German classics as Doktor Mabuse, der Spieler (1922) and M (1931). When he fled Germany to escape the Nazis, his work took on a darker tone, with revenge as one of his primary themes. But his opposition to Hitler would lead to trouble years later, when he was falsely branded a communist in the early 1950s and blacklisted for two years. Once he managed to clear his name, however, he signed a two-picture deal with Columbia Pictures that began with this taut crime thriller.
The Big Heat - the title is criminal slang for a police crackdown on illegal activities - was originally a serial written for the Saturday Evening Post. It was so popular that Columbia bought the rights even before the final chapter appeared. They assigned former crime reporterSydney Boehm to the script. His chief change was to transform the main character, a police officer out for vengeance when a mob hit on him takes out his wife instead, from a scholarly detective to an average guy. This fit perfectly with Lang's approach to filmmaking, creating a character with whom the audience could easily identify.
To play Lang's Everyman, Columbia assigned Glenn Ford, their most reliable box-office star. Although rarely cast in the studio's most prestigious films, Ford's presence insured strong interest from both audiences and the studio. At the time, he was under contract for just one film a year, so they weren't about to waste his commitment on just any film. His powerful presence and innate integrity helped make the picture a hit. In addition, he inspired an in-joke when his first meeting with vicious gangster Lee Marvin was underscored with "Put the Blame on Mame," the hit song from one of Ford's biggest films, Gilda (1946).
Most of the roles in The Big Heat were filled with contract players on the Columbia lot, which proved particularly fortunate in the casting of future Oscar-winner Lee Marvin as a sadistic thug and Gloria Grahame as his tough-talking moll. Grahame was one of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood at the time. As filming started, she had just won the 1952 Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful. That may have caused some problems with Lang. He would later claim that she tried to convince him to change her character from a gangster's girlfriend to an heiress. He got her to accept the role as written by threatening to "show your back all the time and get a parrot to say your dialogue!" Grahame claimed that her only problem was the lack of good lines for her character. She appealed to her boyfriend and future husband, writer Cy Howard, for help. He contributed the film's two most famous lines: her comment to a racketeering cop's widow that "We're sisters - under the mink"; and her assessment of Ford's shabby hotel room as "early nothing." That had actually been Howard's comment a few months earlier when he visited her home for the first time.
Grahame was fast earning a reputation as the screen's number one hard-luck dame, or as she called herself, "Miss Obituary." She fell victim to a plane crash in The Bad and the Beautiful, a crazed driver in Sudden Fear (1952), and a pot of boiling coffee in The Big Heat. Lang had carefully set up the latter scene. As Grahame and Marvin argue, the camera picks up shots of a glass coffee pot boiling furiously on a hot plate - hotter than any sane person would ever want it to be. When Marvin picks up the pot and hurls it in Grahame's face, the camera focuses on his reaction, a face of pure evil that allows the viewer to imagine more suffering than Lang could ever have shown. But years later, he had to laugh at the illogic of the scene. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he said, "I wonder how many women who have thrown hot coffee in their husbands' faces were very disappointed with the result and said, 'Lang is a lousy director.'"
Producer: Robert Arthur
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm
Based on the serial in the Saturday Evening Post by William P. McGivern
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Glenn Ford (Dave Bannion), Gloria Grahame (Debby Marsh), Jocelyn Brando (Katie Bannion), Alexander Scourby (Mike Lagana), Lee Marvin (Vince Stone), Jeanette Nolan (Bertha Duncan), Carolyn Jones (Doris).
by Frank Miller