by Kim Niccolini
I don’t need to tell you that the multiplex is dead. I am a girl who will see just about anything at the movies. I have spent my lifetime going to movies. But even me, the girl who can almost find something remotely redeemable to see at the multiplex, has stopped going. It’s that bad.
So I’m lucky to live in a town that has an independent non-profit cinema –The Loft – which not only shows independent and foreign films but that also screens classic movies on actual film. Currently they are showing a film noir series focusing primarily on tales of cops and corruption. They opened the series with Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) which tells the story of tough cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) trying to take down the corrupt world of the mob and its marriage with law enforcement. Certainly the link between cops and crime is nothing new in the movies. It is as relevant today as it was when it was first explored in early gangster films such as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface(1932) and when it was so brutally detailed in Frances Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films (1972 and 1974). If you look to the movies as a model, in the past they have rarely pulled any punches in equating politics with crime and erasing the line between good and bad. Movies have been a great vehicle for showing the inherent corruption of the American capitalist system, whether legit or not. Criminals are cops, and cops are criminals, and in the end all systems – mafia or government – are out for the same things: money and power. Of course, that means money and power for the world of men, not women.
Not that these movies are short on dames, but the women who occupy these films have to navigate a world controlled by suits and hats, a world of men that would take a woman out with as much care as snubbing a cigarette in an ashtray. Enter The Big Heatwhich has its share of cops, crooks and dames. The Big Heat deviates from its predecessors because it begins with the assumption of good (the morally superior cop Bannion and his belief in The System) and then it takes a torch to the American Dream, blows a hole right through the illusion of law and order, and shows the lethal misogyny that comes political and economic power. The movie may have been made in 1953, but it reflects today’s times just as much as the 50’s and in fact is probably a more accurate picture of the American socio-political landscape than any of the dreck currently playing at the multiplex. A story of corrupt cops and hate binges, sadist men and the women they prey on, the good that is bad and the bad that’s just bad is always timely.
The movie was released at a time when American held its head high as a pillar of moral superiority, when it white washed everything with its high-handed self-importance as a model for democracy and the success of capitalism. Not only did Americans like to believe that they adhered to the most ethical family values, but the success of capitalism and democratic equality could be measured in a skewed perception of domestic comfort. As we turned on our TVs, ate our steaks, and drank our beer, we were setting the path to righteousness for the rest of the world. Save the world from those commie fuckers! And don’t forget to keep the women in the kitchen! And bomb the fuck out of anyone who doesn’t agree with American imperialist ideology! And Dave Bannion will help lead the way!
Dave Bannion bought this candy-coated myth hook, line and sinker. He took up the badge as a savior to man and womankind. Dave Bannion is the cop deadset on keeping keep law and order free from corruption, and he will put the criminals in jail where they belong. Only problem is that Dave Bannion forgets to remember that cops have always been corrupt, that law and order only exist to serve those in power by any means possible including murder and torture, and that there is no line between criminals and cops. They are cut from the same cloth, including Bannion.
As always, Fritz Lang’s direction is impeccable. The film opens with a perfectly composed shot of a handgun on a desk. The gun is then picked up by a cop who blows his brains out. The wife rushes in and confiscates the suicide note which we learn contains all the dirty secrets about the police department’s role in the city’s syndicated crime. The wife figures she can use the letter as leverage to muscle some money out of the cops and the bad guys. The girl’s got it figured out. So the movie opens inside a domestic space that is violently disrupted by suicide, corruption and greed.
The movie then shifts gears to its lead character Bannion. Visually, the film takes a turn from Lang’s earlier work in which he heavily relied on darks and shadows to show threats, corruption and/or psycho-social fracturing. Instead, The Big Heat feels anything but hot when we meet Bannion. We are introduced to Bannion and his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) in their blissful domestic life that literally looks white washed. The domestic scenes are bleached clean as if they have been scrubbed from any possible dirt (a word Bannion likes to toss around in reference to bad guys and lousy dames). The interactions between Bannion, Katie and their daughter seem forced and staged like they are trying to convince themselves as well as the audience how good they have it. When they speak it’s like they are reciting lines from an advertisement for the American Dream. They recite childhood pop psychology books in talking about how to be the perfect parents for the daughter. The Bannions aren’t real people. They are symptoms of indoctrination. They share steak, cigarettes and whisky as symbols of the perfect marital union when it’s all made out of blocks and can crumble any minute (and does). Their union is supported by the badge which Bannion wears because he really wants to believe that he is defending everything his home and marriage stand for. The Bannion domestic scenes are so clean they actually made me feel queasy, like I was inhaling bleach. We are set up to welcome blowing the whole thing to bits.
When Bannion confronts the crime syndicate, led by Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his hench man Vince Stone (a very young and formidably menacing Lee Marvin), the bleach starts to wear off. In a short period of time, we learn that everyone is out for their own piece of pie, and that pie comes at the price of crime, corruption, torture, murder, and anything that can secure money and power for the guys in suits and hats, whether they are wearing a badge or not.
Bannion thinks he can take on the whole system, but he is a casualty to his own self-delusion. His sense of self-righteous entitlement for justice and vengeance is like a disease, and he is actually part of the problem and not the cure. Bannion’s blindness and ignorance leave a trail of death in his wake. As he takes on the world of men, he leaves a trail of dead women. Nearly every woman he comes in contact with bites the dust. Bannion thinks he is driven by justice, but really he is driven by hate. He is a self-righteous hate machine who only cares about his own taste for vengeance and his own self-righteous view of the world. He acts as judge and executioner as he plows through the story leaving a trail of maimed women and corpses.
His first casualty is Lucy, the mistress of the cop who blew his brains out. Bannion rushes out the door, leaving his family behind, to meet with Lucy not even thinking that his meeting with her will put both Lucy and his own family at risk. When the mob kills Lucy and dumps her on the side of the road, they call Bannion’s home and warn him to lay off. Instead, Bannion barrels into Lagana’s home and pisses off the mob so much that Bannion ends up being responsible for his own wife’s death. These events unfold as a series of causes and effects. Lang’s clinical approach to filmmaking reveal actions and consequences. They are not “heated up” as the title implies, but rather a systematic series of implosions caused by Bannion’s white hot hatred and sense of self-righteous entitlement.
Fritz Lang has always been brilliant at using children and toys to tell a deeper story (think of his masterpiece M). InThe Big Heat, one simple scene pretty much tells the whole parable of the film. Bannion’s daughter is building a police station out of wood blocks and says “It’s just like daddy.” In his careless self-obsession, Bannion knocks down the building, and his daughter’s fallible vision of her father tumbles in pieces. Shortly after this incident, Bannion’s car explodes with his wife Katie in it. Pow. There goes the American Dream. Damn.
When Bannion smashes the window of the car and pulls Katie’s dead body from the burning vehicle, the heat begins to crank full throttle as Bannion sets on his destructive tunnel-vision course of vengeance. He blindly heaves his way through the film as he impotently attempts to combat the world of cops and criminals. His impotence is literalized in a series of dead women he leaves in the wake of his vengeance.
The most famous scene in The Big Heat involves Lee Marvin’s Stone tossing a boiling pot of coffee at Gloria Grahame’s face. Though the scene takes place off screen, it is an iconic act of cinematic sadism. Grahame plays Debby, the mob girl who sings and laughs her way through a viciously sadistic world, and her deformed face becomes the embodiment of the deformed image of women in this world run by men in suits. The movie may star Bannion, but the heart of the movie lies in Debby. She is the real casualty to this fucked up system. Bannion is just another symptom, another man with an axe to grind even though he likes to see himself as a kind of Jesus out for revenge. Debby, on the other hand, is nuanced. She is the girl who plays dumb but is actually smart, the survivor, the one who knows the truth.
Bannion tends to Debby after her face is scalded and scarred, but the movie also ends with Debby dead and Bannion alive. In his last lines, Bannion requests fresh coffee and insists that the secretary make it “really hot” connecting Bannion to the very criminals he thinks he is above, and showing us that nothing has changed despite Bannion’s hate binge.
In many ways, Bannion is the ignorant self-righteous American who thinks he is good when there is no such thing as good in an inherently corrupt and sadistic system. Blind hate and blind faith both make Bannion toxic. He subscribes to a fallacy, and his hate propagates a system of hate.
Debby is the life blood of the movie. Bannion is nothing but a propaganda machine. When Debby is scalded, Lang brings on the darks. Shadows and depth seep into the scenes as if life blood is pumped into the movie through Debby’s tragic figure. Debby is not propaganda. Debby is like a solider fighting her own battle of survival in a land of tyrants, and we feel for her because she is real.
The movie refuses to give answers. In the end, a lot of women die and a lot of cops and criminals live. The Sisters of the Mink lie dead, while the suits and ties drink fresh hot coffee. That was 63 years ago, and I got news. The suits are still drinking fresh hot coffee; the cops are still criminals; and the Debbys still know a hell of a lot more than the Bannions even if the odds of their survival are slim.
As an ode to this movie which I saw for the first time when I was a kid, the daughter of a corrupt San Francisco cop, I wrote letters to Bannion and Debby. I share them with you since they came back to me Return to Sender.
Letters to Bannion and Debby
You are the girl cut in half. The girl who can laugh sideways because you have to. The girl who laughs because it’s better than crying. The girl who laughs even when you know your life is on the line because you know your life has always been and will always be on the line. Debby the girl who is a thing, your face reflected in the mirror like a lamp or a piece of furniture. Debby the mob girl. Debby of the streets. Debby sister in the mink. Debby the mink. Debby who has lived poor and tasted rich and prefers rich even with its bad aftertaste. Tastes like bruises and burnt coffee. Debby who is smart as a whip even when playing dumb, but not smart enough to dodge your own death. Debby you knew you had a death sentence to begin with. You played what few cards you had to try to come out with a Royal Flush even when you knew you were always royally flushed. A girl to be tossed around, beaten down, swapped between men like a used overcoat or mattress. Debby who Bannion likes to call dirty when you’re the cleanest person in his life and in this movie. Because you tell it straight, Debby, even when straight is dirt. You’re not telling any lies. You know what you’re up against. Hup hup Debby. You give what they want and take what you can get. When you fall down for the last time your face divided in half, bearing the scars of the life you bore, you drift off into a dream that never was an option only a dream. Wise thing is you know that Debby. You know that dreams are just that. Dreams. Bannion the cruel fool doesn’t get it. He calls you dirty while his illusion of clean blew up in his own hands, by his own hands. His hands are dirty, Debby. Debby you are a girl of pure truth. Even when you wield a handgun and kill to save your own skin, your heart is soft as mink. Yes, you get stepped on, snubbed like a cigarette butt, pushed aside like a yapping dog, but you learn to like it that way or at least pretend you do because you understand you don’t have much choice. Debby you are the heat, the big heat, the big throbbing pulsing heartbeat in this movie. You breathe life into its rigid world. Debby when you die, I cry because the world of suits and hats and cops and crooks keeps winning. They will find the next Debby while you are buried in an unmarked grave. You are our sister under the mink. Thank you for telling the truth even when it cost you your life.
You self-deluded fool. You with your smoke and mirrors mirage of domestic bliss. Did you ever realize how fake you look when you share a bloody steak, a beer and a smoke? How you have to recite out loud how good it is just to convince yourself when you know it can all blow up in a minute. Because of you. You who thinks you’re a good guy just cause you signed up to wear a badge. You who really only cares about you even though you say you care about everyone else. Especially women. You the martyr out for vengeance. You who kills almost every woman you touch while you convince yourself you are trying to save her or care for her or avenge her. You who are blinded by your own self-righteous self-righteousness. You who swing punches because it feels good to smack your fingers against the bones of another man to feel like you’re actually accomplishing something when really you are an impotent rage machine killing your own wife. Killing the bad cop’s mistress, the gangster’s whore. Think about it. The only woman you don’t kill is the crippled one because, well, she’s already crippled. You invite the bought girl into your hotel for what? Kicks? Thrills? You sit her on your bed, and the room turns dark like you when you silence the girl who tells the truth because you can’t stomach it. You are not only part of the problem. You are the problem. The girl loses half her face because of you. You pretend to give a shit because it serves the myth you created of yourself. The believer in good. The upholder of law. The man out to save the women when you are the murderer. You take the girl in and then dump her on the streets again. Say you don’t want to get your hands dirty on her when your hands are dirtier than hers will ever be. Who made you God? So you take her in again. But don’t kid yourself. It’s not for her but for you because you can’t stand to feel bad. Well it’s time to feel bad, Bannion. You the blind man stumbling. You who bought the lie of the badge. The lie you told yourself. Remember when you knocked over the police station your daughter built out of wooden blocks? That’s you Bannion. You are hollow inside, filled with rage and empty purpose. You tossed your daughter aside so you could flirt with danger. Ever think that you like to watch women hurt? Watch them die? Ever ask why you want your coffee really hot?