Monday, August 31, 2009

The Big Heat

Lately, I've had a fondness for noir. I've developed an interest in American genre films in general. Thinking in genres lends new weight to films that seem contrived and stereotyped. Actually, it is this perceived stereotyping and following of convention that make them so interesting. This reverence I have for classical genres makes me wonder sometimes if I'm too quick to disregard contemporary films whose themes seem too overplayed or omnipresent. For instance, this "bro-mance" revolution might turn out to have unforeseen cultural significance. Honestly, it probably will. I'm sure I'll have a post dedicated to this at some point, but right now, back to the initial topic. Out of classic American genres, film noir is by far the most interesting, and most beloved of genres, both within our country and without.

Directed by famous German emigre, Fritz Lang, The Big Heat is a traditional noir in all aspects, depicting the confrontation of a police officer with dark forces outside of his control. In The Big Heat, Sergeant Bannion (Glenn Ford) falls deeper into city's underground as he delves into the suicide of a fellow officer. As his investigation progresses, he discovers just how little the law actually affects the order of his community. Instead it is the mob boss, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), who wields utter control over the city. Bannion quickly throws out the rule book once he realizes that there is a new set of rules, previously elusive to him. Abiding by a moral code that separates him from the other characters, he strives for what is right no matter what the consequences. His persistence loses him, first his wife, then his official title, leaving him to wander alone through the deceitful underbelly of this unnamed city.

In a confrontation with Lagana's right hand man, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), Bannion meets Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame)--a woman who initially repulses him because of her willingness to stand by a man she acknowledges is no good, just to reap the benefits of his association. In her own defense, she claims that there is a good side to him. Still, when Vincent gets wind of her rendezvous with Bannion, he scars her face with a hot pot of coffee. From this point on, her face is two-sided, signifying the moral duality that Debby embodies. Once she has been outwardly marked with the signification of evil, she acts accordingly. Acknowledging that Bannion is too good at heart to do what needs to be done, she takes it upon herself to take action, knowing that the resulting murders make her no better than her boyfriend, Vince. As she contemplates her actions, she sits in the deep contrast of the shadows cast by those beautifully stereotypical venetian blinds.

With her hard drinking and lascivious ways, Debby also forms an interesting opposition to Bannion's guileless, loving wife. In her final moments, Debby asks Bannion to describe his wife to her, as if wanting to extract her virtues in an improvised version of last rites. As she dies, the camera rests on her face, and she turns her clean, un-scarred cheek upwards. In this way the question of right and wrong goes unsolved. In a world where there are no real rules, is her revenge justified? Is killing one corrupt woman in order to release the city from the grasp of Laganda really wrong? Most of all, is it wrong that she did these things out of her love for Bannion? The Big Heat depicts a world typical of noir, where right and wrong are as subjective as a detective's preference for cigarette brands, where the law is thrown aside in pursuit of rights that lie outside the designated lines.