Vigilante Justice: The Big Heat (1953)

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William P. McGivern created Harry Callaghan, better known as Dirty Harry. Not literally. He created the literary environment that made Harry Callaghan possible, as well as Paul Kersey, the vigilante at the center of Death Wish (1974). McGivern was the writer who gave us The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954), both made into movies in the fifties and the former, The Big Heat, gave us the character of Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, the cop at the heart of the film who fights against a corrupt system outside the lines, quitting his job to pursue vigilante justice on his own. It’s a good story but is Dave Bannion a good guy? Is there a good guy in the story? Maybe.

The Big Heat certainly earns its title. The heat is on Bannion (Glenn Ford in a terrific performance) to close a case no one wants him to solve, people are tortured with heat throughout (cigarette burns, boiling coffee to the face, and bombs, blowing up the family car with Bannion’s wife inside), and , of course, everyone’s packing heat, in one way or another. The story begins when Bannion looks into the suicide of a fellow cop and gets contacted by the cop’s mistress who tells him it definitely was not a suicide. When Bannion visits the cop’s wife, things get worse and when he gets back to the station he is told to back off and close the investigation. He doesn’t and his wife gets killed in an explosion that blows up the car as she starts it. Bannion quits his job, convinced corruption runs too deep in the department, and sets out to get revenge.

BIG HEAT, THE (1953)

Portraying revenge has been around for a long time with The Count of Monte Cristo (1934, 1954, 2002) being among the most well known. And detectives following their own conscience, and using their own methods, was also something not new to the literary tradition when McGivern started writing.  But McGivern’s The Big Heat infuses it with the cynicism found in noir coupled with a stark sense of menace on the part of the protagonist. Bannion is a hero because he’s fighting for the right side. But so is Serpico (1973), who manages to do it within the system and without using unsavory methods. Of course, for his troubles, Serpico gets a bullet to the face. And Hank Quinlan, the evidence planting detective at the center of Touch of Evil (1958), gets his in the end, too. But Quinlan was, in his own way, just doing what Bannion and Callahan and Serpico were doing: fighting for justice in a system that he felt was too ineffective to administer it.

BIG HEAT, THE (1953)

Dave Bannion isn’t phased in his pursuit of justice. He keeps going, no matter the threat, no matter the danger. It’s certainly an admirable trait but the way Bannion goes about it has a relentless quality that slowly creeps towards obsession, and danger. Though everything works out for Bannion, it does not, obviously, work out for those around him, notably the woman he loves and the women he meets, who are either killed or tortured. And Bannion doesn’t seem to care, not that much, not really. His wife’s death instills him with anger, not emotional loss. He feels it, but if there is any suspicion that he is suppressing it until he wraps everything up, it goes out the window when he goes back to work at the end and seems happy to have a hot cup of coffee.

BIG HEAT, THE (1953)

So where does this leave us with Bannion? And The Big Heat? And its director Fritz Lang? Lang directed movies that dealt directly with justice and breaking moral codes before. In Fury (1936), Spencer Tracy survives a murderous mob only to fake his death and try and get them executed. In M (1931), Peter Lorre, playing a killer of children, is abducted by the mob and put on trial, only to tell them they’re worse because their crimes are premeditated and his crimes are mentally triggered. Lang liked the idea of questioning our morality and our ethics and challenging us to question ourselves. See for yourself by perusing The Masters: Fritz Lang theme currently available on FilmStruck.

BIG HEAT, THE (1953)

The Big Heat may be his greatest achievement because Bannion is his greatest character. Bannion isn’t Harry Callahan. He’s not Serpico. He’s not Hank Quinlan. He’s out for revenge, yes, but he started the journey out for justice. The revenge only came about due to his wife’s death but it was clear before then that he wasn’t going to give up until the case was closed and the corruption was rooted out. He’s not planting evidence, like Quinlan. He’s not overly violent, or dependent upon it, like Callahan. And he’s not trying to clean up the department by going to the D.A. and setting a good example, like Serpico. He’s a cop with a moral purpose and a foundation of ethics. In other words, he’s like many noir characters. A good guy who often has to go down some shadowy streets to emerge into the light on the other end.

Greg Ferrara

8 Responses Vigilante Justice: The Big Heat (1953)
Posted By LD : January 20, 2017 6:39 am

Thank you Greg for writing about a favorite film noir and my favorite Lang film made in the U.S. So many interesting characters. Bannion, of course, in his fight against political corruption, traveling a path from seeking justice to revenge. The vain Debby Marsh (my favorite Grahame role) whose mirror is her best friend, yet dispenses revenge at its most satisfying, in my opinion. The ruthless Bertha Duncan. Then there is the “Big Heat”, Lagana, whose family is everything, yet it is his idea to jeopardize Bannion’s child, and not the sadistic Vince Stone’s.

In THE BIG HEAT revenge is at its best when served hot, not cold.

Posted By Emgee : January 20, 2017 3:40 pm

“The Big Heat may be his greatest achievement because Bannion is his greatest character.”
Much as i love this movie, my vote goes to Peter Lorre in M.

It just struck me that most of his movies are about loners and outsiders, and a recurring theme is revenge. OK, class, discuss!

Grahame and Marvin really stand out for me, and Jeanette Nolan is a nasty piece of work.

Posted By George : January 20, 2017 5:19 pm

Love that poster! Looks like a paperback cover from the era.

Posted By Doug : January 20, 2017 7:37 pm

I haven’t seen this film, but it looks like an experience. I noticed on the poster that Lee Marvin is in it-Point Blank.
Having recently seen Gloria Grahame in “In A Lonely Place”, I feel like I need to see more of her films, and this would be the one to watch.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 22, 2017 3:23 pm

LD, Gloria Grahame is so great in this. This movie has a real cruelty to its characters that many modern crime movies, with far more graphic violence, shy away from. One modern movie that reminds me of this one in its deep cynicism is The Grifters. Maybe Blood Simple too.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 22, 2017 3:26 pm

Lang’s movies definitely have a recurring theme of revenge. My three top Lang revenge movies are Fury, Scarlet Street, and The Big Heat.

Peter Lorre’s performance in M is one of the great performances of the cinema, in my opinion, but Bannion’s character is my favorite.

And yes, that poster is awesome. And also yes, Lee Marvin is awesome in the movie. He’s one of the guys burning people with cigarettes. A real charmer.

Posted By Juana Maria : January 23, 2017 9:17 pm

Lee Marvin is the only reason I watch this movie! I will get flack for this, but don’t care… I’m not a fan of either Glenn Ford or Gloria Graham. Of the two, I dislike Gloria Graham more. She is so strange and fake. She had Novocain shot in the upper lip so she would have a certain look. Weird. Back to the comparison between “Big Heat” and “The Grafters”, yeah the burning scenes always make me whence! Ouch!

Posted By Ellen Marie : February 12, 2017 10:13 pm

You may or may not like Gloria Graham, but you just can’t NOT watch her performances, especially in this one. She had a smaller role in the The Bad and the Beautiful, and the same thing (think she got an oscar for than one. I loved this film, including the mean and menacing Lee Marvin, and was happy when the good guy finally won out. No love stories here.

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