There's a satisfying sense of closure to the definitive noir kick achieved in The Big Heat: its director, Fritz Lang, had forged early links from German expressionism to the emergence of film noir, so it's entirely logical that the expatriate director would help codify the genre with this brutal 1953 film. Visually, his scenes exemplify the bold contrasts, deep shadows, and heightened compositions that define the look of noir, and he matches that success with the darkly pessimistic themes of this revenge melodrama.
The story coheres around the suicide of a crooked cop, and the subsequent struggle of an honest detective, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), to navigate between a corrupt city government and a ruthless mobster to uncover the truth. Initially, the violence here seems almost timid by comparison to the more explicit carnage now commonplace in films, yet the story accelerates as its plot arcs toward Bannion's showdown with kingpin Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his psychotic henchman, the sadistic Vince Stone, given an indelible nastiness by Lee Marvin. When Bannion's wife is killed by a car bomb intended for the detective, both the hero and the story go ballistic: suspended from the force, he embarks on a crusade of revenge that suggests a template for Charles Bronson's Death Wish films, each step pushing Lagana and Stone toward a showdown. Bodies drop, dominoes tumbled by the escalating war between the obsessed Bannion and his increasingly vicious adversaries.
Lang's disciplined visual design and the performances (especially those of Ford, Marvin, Jeanette Nolan as the dead cop's scheming widow, and Gloria Grahame as Marvin's girlfriend) enable the film to transcend formula, as do several memorable action scenes--when an enraged Marvin hurls scalding coffee at the feisty Debby (Grahame), we're both shattered by the violence of his attack, and aware that he's shifted the balance of power. --Sam Sutherland
, Fritz Lang's most celebrated American film, is a chilling and violent tale of corruption, vengeance, and loss. Dave Bannion, played by distinguished film noir actor Glenn Ford, is an upright but unscrupulous cop on the trail of a vicious gang he suspects holds power over the police force. Bannion is tipped off after a colleague's suicide and his fellow officers' suspicious silence lead him to believe that they are on the gangsters' payroll. When a bomb meant for him kills his wife instead, Bannion becomes a furious force of vengeance and justice, aided along the way by the gangster's spurned girlfriend Debbie (Gloria Grahame). As Bannion and Debbie fall further and further into the Gangland's insidious and brutal trap, they must use any means necessary (including murder) to get to the truth. The violence comes suddenly and unrelentingly, as Lang explodes the stripped down story with economic yet forceful cinematography and editing, and gritty yet emotionally gripping performances from Ford and Grahame.