Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for July on TCM

My late father once told me "You have to watch Fritz Lang". I believe he meant that literally, but in recent years I've come to think of it as "you have to watch Fritz Lang because he's sneaky". Many of his films seem to tell a straight-forward story in a straight-forward way, but you'll find yourself sidetracked and your thoughts going in a different direction by the way he'll linger on a face or an object, or not linger on it. The story of one character becomes the story of another. The focus on one event or theme days later becomes something else entirely. I think that's why no matter how many times I have seen it, I never pass up the opportunity to watch 1953s The Big Heat. Perhaps you feel the same way.

Glenn Ford

The Big Heat is the story of corruption in a big city. A cop named Duncan has the goods on a crime boss named Lagana. Duncan's suicide elicits a lot of unanswered questions and both sides of the law are stressed by the information that may or may not come out. There are tough, uncompromising men involved in this scenario including honest detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), respectably-fronted hood Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his muscle Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). However, for me, the story of The Big Heat is the story of its women.

Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin

Gloria Grahame is Debby Marsh, Vince's girl. She's a moll who takes the money and the high life that comes from her association with the powerful element in town. She's also not as dumb as she lets on, although not as smart as she should be. She has a good heart and an honest way of looking at the world and her place in it. Debby is one of the most memorable characters in film-noir and it is due to Gloria's heartbreaking, layered performance.

Jocelyn Brando, Glenn Ford

Jocelyn Brando is Katie Bannion, Dave's wife. She is captured at a perfect time in her life with a loving husband and a sweet young daughter. The life she is building has a strong foundation and it makes her confident and free to enjoy all her moments.

Jeanette Nolan, Glenn Ford

Jeanette Nolan is Bertha Duncan, widow. Bertha is the reason her late husband was on the take. She wanted more and her husband's sideways position in the mob was her way to get more. Her husband's suicide gives her the power she craves and she is more than happy to wield it. The versatile Ms. Nolan in this film is more Lady Macbeth (1948s Macbeth) than Dirty Sally of her 1974 TV show. She's cold and resolute. Her pride perhaps clouds her judgment.

Dorothy Green, Glenn Ford

Dorothy Green is Lucy Chapman, Duncan's conscience and a B-girl. Ms. Green's soft and pretty looks which would later land her the role of Brooks family matriarch Jennifer on TVs The Young and the Restless plays against Bertha's toughness and her own character's tough circumstances. It is her relationship with Duncan that precipitates the breakdown of the mob. Her quietly desperate scene with Bannion as she looks in vain for official solace in Tom Duncan's death is fraught with fear. She is doomed.

Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Carolyn Jones

Carolyn Jones is Doris, just a girl at a bar looking for some fun. Carolyn Jones (Oscar nominee, The Bachelor Party, TVs The Addams Family) always stands out, even in the smallest bits. In this role, she emphasizes things about Debby and Vince that we need to know.

Edith Evanson, Glenn Ford

Edith Evanson (Shane, I Remember Mama) is Selma Parker, the most invisible of women, middle-aged and lame. In a city filled with timid men, she sees a way to assist the brave and does so at her peril.

Celia Lovsky, Alexander Scourby

Celia Lovsky's image is the portrait of Mike Lagana's mother that overwhelms his massive den and his life. The prolific actress and former Mrs. Peter Lorre was a close friend of Fritz Lang's and the first character to say the words "Live long and prosper" as T'Pau on Star Trek: Amok Time

Amid the topcoats and fedoras, the brutality and the conceit, The Big Heat is the story of its women and their hearts.

TCM is screening the 1954 Edgar winner for Best Motion Picture The Big Heat on Tuesday, July 9 at 9:15 am.


  1. When I wrote about this movie, what impressed me most about it was Glenn Ford, but yeah, the women in this are good too, particularly Gloria Grahame, who I also liked in IN A LONELY PLACE.

    BTW, I really dug your Judy Holliday post. She's one of my all-time favorite actresses.

  2. I'm pleased you dug the Judy post.

    I rushed over to catch your take on "The Big Heat" and agree with your assessment of Glenn Ford. I love watching him.

    "The Big Heat" and "In a Lonely Place" both showcase Gloria's versatility as as actress. She strikes the right chord in each picture leaving an indelible impression.

  3. Caftan Woman, THE BIG HEAT is another one of those movies that I've been wanting to give my undivided attention! Sure, I've seen bits and pieces of his (literally, in some of the more violent scenes), and I've even read some of its more memorable quotes, like the one being sisters under the mink, but now you've galvanized me into watching THE BIG HEAT sooner rather than later, thanks for your riveting post! :-)

  4. Whoa, Dorian! I feel all-powerful like the Wizard of Oz. I don't think I've ever galvanized anyone before.

  5. I haven't seen this one in a couple years, but your great write-up makes me want to watch it again very soon. It's really a terrific noir, and who can ever forget the hot coffee in the face scene. Like the grapefruit in the face scene of The Public Enemy, that is one of those iconic cinematic moments.

    Thanks for reminding me of this one!

  6. Patti, this is one of those movies that it is a pleasure to revisit. Debby's revenge is a most satisfactory moment.

  7. I don't think I've ever seen it, but I love your description of the women's angle in this movie. I'll be on the lookout.

  8. JTL, it's a movie for a dark night, even on a sunny day.

  9. I took a course on Fritz Lang in college because I liked the professor. It was a terrific class and I became a Fritz fan, of course. He is indeed sneaky and THE BIG HEAT is, in my opinion, his best U.S. film. (Ditto for Gloria!) Another awesome TCM pick.

  10. Ha! Fritz IS sneaky. It's official! An interesting subject with a knowledgeable professor sounds like time well spent.

    I've lost track of the number of times I've watched "The Big Heat".

  11. I LOVE this film - especially Gloria Grahame. Boy, we she a film noir dish. When she got a good role - watch out. Loved reading your post!

  12. Thanks, FlickChick. It's easy to take Gloria for granted, but when that lady got the right role, she gave it her all.

  13. Loved your description of Fritz Lang in the opening paragraphs. Your father sounds like a very wise man.

  14. Thanks, Kevin. My dad had his moments.

  15. Love love love this movie. And I think your father was right - Fritz Lang IS sneaky, isn't he? I never thought about it that way until I started reading your post. Great review!

  16. From now on when we read the credits for a Lang picture in our heads we'll be saying "Directed by Sneaky Fritz Lang". Ha!



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