The Big Heat (1953)

Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat" could be the best piece of noir film making ever. It takes into consideration the stereotypical moments from crime films of the time and plays off of them. Fashioned after a movie like "The Maltese Falcon" (which was an equally dry and gritty book), "The Big Heat" is a lovely mystery, thriller, and commentary on the frailty of human nature.
Detective Sgt. Dave Bannion is a Sam Spade kind of guy. Sure, he'll stick to the rule book if that's what it takes; but he's not afraid to cross legal lines to get the guy he wants. Unlike Spade, he's not a womanizer. He is happily married to his doting and surprisingly forward wife—the two have a daughter.
"The Big Sleep", once it gets going, balances the gritty police scene moments with the tender instances that happen at home. Bannion and his wife have a great relationship. She takes sips of his drink, puffs from his cigarette, and bits off his steak. The two share everything, so when Bannion accidentally treads on the corrupt foundation of the city, things start to get a little ugly.
The movie opens with a suicide, which is audacious enough when you think of when this was made. To have a death in the first scene is interesting, but "The Big Heat" holds many more surprises.
The man who kills himself is (or was) a police officer. His wife comes down to find his not-yet-cold corpse and a suicide note addressed to the district attorney.
She quickly opens the note and reads what is inside...what she see prompts her to make a phone call.
Bannion arrives on the scene and the examiner quickly rules it a suicide—because that's just what it was. Ready to scratch this case off his to-do list, Bannion is perplexed when a woman calls him with information, alleging that the man did not commit suicide. Bannion listens to her, the woman turns out to be a mistress of the officer's—she gives a little bit of information to him and his rapidly writes her off as an attention seeking barfly.
Then the next day she turns up dead.
Bannion becomes embroiled in the mystery, following flimsy leads down the rabbit hole. What he uncovers will have its ramifications.
This movie is perhaps the single greatest inspiration of modern day police thrillers like "Chinatown" or "L.A. Confidential". It's about a quest for justice, obsession.
The audience is allowed to ask if Bannion is searching for his own edification or the greater good.
Smoky and dark, "The Big Heat" looks fantastic. It is a movie that would help usher in America to the "modern" age of moving making—remember that just a few years after this we get "Breathless".
What is shocking about the movie is how graphic it is. Main characters die, people get scarred, violence abounds. It's no revolutionary in this, but it is interesting to see.
The acting is solid all around.
Fritz Lang certainly knew how to make a movie. His protagonist is flawed, his story fresh and edgy, and his touch is near perfection.
"The Big Heat" is one of the most enjoyable noir pieces you can find.

Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4

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