A violent gang plant a bomb in a cop's car. But his wife is the victim as the car explodes. Out to avenge her death, and having already uncovered corruption within the police force he is determined to expose the gang.
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
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