Friday, January 16, 2009


Tennessee Democratic Senator Carey Estes Kefauver became synonymous with the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce that convened during 1950. The Kefauver hearings took place in 14 cities, and 600 witnesses testified as a part of them. Prominent gangland figures, among them Willie Moretti, Joe Adonis, and Frank Costello, appeared before the committee. Not only did these televised hearings wreck some political careers but also the hearings advanced others, such as Everett Dirksen, while the hearings publicized for the first time the idea of a criminal syndicate called 'the Mafia.' The Kefauver hearings exerted considerable influence on Hollywood, too. Revelations of organized crime’s pervasive corruption of America furnished filmmakers with fresh plots. The hearings forged an entire subgenre of crime movies about Mafia corruption in city hall, including “The Enforcer” (1951) with Kefauver appearing in a forward, “The Mob” (1951), “Kansas City Confidential” (1952), “Captive City” (1952), and “Hoodlum Empire” (1952). Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” (1953) concerned Mafia domination of city government and escalated the levels of brutality and violence. Afterward, movies like "Rogue Cop" (1954) about a corrupt cop (Robert Taylor) would follow in the wake of "The Big Heat."

As a tough-talking, two-fisted, homicide police sergeant bent on revenge, Glenn Ford's Sergeant David Bannion in Fritz Lang's superlative thriller "The Big Heat" served as a kind of prototype for Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" character. This seminal saga about police corruption and metropolitan crime syndicates in the fictional town of Kenport appears a little dated by today's standards with its obvious studio sets and Charles Lang's crisp black and white cinematography, but it still packs a wallop. "Mystery Street" scenarist Sidney Boehm based his screenplay on William P. McGivern's Saturday Evening Post serial. Before veteran cop Tom Duncan commits suicide, he leaves a written record of his corrupt dealings with big-time hoodlum Mike Lagana (an urbane Alexander Scourby of "Seven Thieves") for the district attorney. Duncan's greedy wife wants the payoffs to continue, however, so she blackmails Lagana for $500 a week. Sergeant Dave Bannion finds himself assigned to the case. "When a cop kills himself, they want a full report," he says to a fellow policeman at the scene of the suicide. Bannion generates a lot of hostility in getting that "full report" not only among the paranoid criminal figures but also with his superiors some of whom may or may not be on the take.

Everything comes to a head one evening when Bannion and his pretty wife Katie (Marlon's older sister Jocelyn Brando of "Ten Wanted Men") are bound for a movie. Katie commandeers their car while Dave tells their young daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett of "Creature with the Atomic Brain") a bedtime story. She is going to drive off to pick up the babysitter. Unfortunately, Katie never gets out of their driveway because several sticks of dynamite attached to the ignition explode and kill her when she starts the car. Of course, the criminals expected Dave to die in the explosion. Dave survives and sends his daughter off to live with some friends while he starts smashing heads. Mike Lagana isn't any too happy about this error. Meanwhile, Dave's superiors turn up the heat on him to cool off, but he refuses to and quits the force to take care of business. Along the way, he crosses paths with a dame, Debby Marsh (Oscar winner Gloria Grahame of "The Bad and the Beautiful"), and they chat in his motel room. Word reaches Debby's thuggish boyfriend, Vince Stone (up and coming Lee Marvin of "The Dirty Dozen") and he takes his rage out on his girl by splashing her face with scalding coffee. Earlier, Stone burned a bar girl, Doris (Carolyn Jones of TV's "The Addams Family"), with his cigarette and attracted Dave's interest.

Later, Dave has harsh words with Lagana, and our hero is forced to leave the force to complete his investigation. Dave and Debby become unlikely friends, and he confides in Debby that everything will blow up in Lagana's face if the wife of the dead cop were to release his death note. Debby visits Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan of "Tribute to a Bad Man") and she has an interesting dialogue exchange with her about being 'sisters in mink' before she guns her down in cold blood as a favor to Dave. Actually, Dave turns into a rogue himself and he isn't much different from the scum that he wants to put away for the murder of his innocent, defenseless wife. Women fare horribly in "The Big Heat." Indeed, all of the women involved in the plot, with the exception of Doris, wind up dead by fade-out. . Altogether, “The Big Heat” resembles a film noir thriller, but Lang and Boehm violate one of its chief tenets. Instead of women destroying men, the opposite occurs. Bannion, who is warned by a colleague about his “hate binge,” winds up destroying four women, including his wife, in his crusade for justice.

Lang directs "The Big Heat" without any pretensions, and it is better for this treatment. He never wears out his welcome at 90 crisp, no-nonsense minutes. The coffee burning incident happens off camera. We see Marvin grab a boiling pot of coffee and Graham screams. Later, Graham returns the favor, but this time the action occurs in a semi-darkened room and we see liquid flying across a room like a serpent lashing out. The only complaint of mine is that we don't visually see Lagana suffer as a result of Bannion's investigation. Although Bannion has banished chaos and restored order by the last scene when his new superiors reinstate him, the cost has been catastrophic. Indeed, in Lang’s sadistic mise-en-scene, the hero must wipe out virtually everything—sometimes even his loved one—before peace can be regained.

Representative of several film reviews that appeared during the initial showings of "The Big Heat" is Robert Kass' review in "Catholic World: "The present vogue for sadism and violence reaches some kind of apex in "The Big Heat," a truly gruesome crime thriller in which a detective-sergeant singlehandedly battles corruption in city government controlled by a ruthless racketeer." Later, Kass adds for effect: "I wonder that someone hasn't protested about the frightening display of viciousness which must have an even greater impact on young minds. Apparently, though, sadism is not considered on a par with sex."

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