Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More temperate weather

We had a thunderstorm last night to break the heatwave. Fortunately, it came between the first two Charlie Chan movies airing on TCM, so I didn't miss any worthwhile programming. With the temperatures not as high, however, now is a better time to recommend The Big Heat.

A fairly overlooked movie at the time of its release in 1953, The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford as police detective Dave Bannion. One of his fellow cops has committed suicide, but while investigating the suicide, Bannion is given some evidence by a not-so-nice woman that it may actually have been murder. It turns out that that witness gets killed, herself, giving Bannion even more reason to believe that this was no suicide. Unfortunately for him, his superiors are blocking him at every turn. They're corrupt as all get-out, and it's a fairly open secret that the corruption is thanks to the city's chief gangster, Mike Lagana (played by Alexander Scourby). Bannion takes on Lagana, but it only leads to him getting in trouble with his superiors, followed by his wife's (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon), getting killed by Lagana's henchmen in a scene that's woefully telegraphed.

They say, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned", but a woman scorned has nothing on Ford's Sgt. Bannion. Bannion proceeds to get to the bottom of the case, albeit with quite a bit of help from the moll of one of Lagana's henchmen, Debby Marsh, played by Gloria Grahame. She comes to Bannion in part to get away from her boyfriend, Vince Stone, played by a young Lee Marvin, for we see that Stone is insanely jealous, and has a hair-trigger temper to boot. In fact, in one of the best scenes in the movie, Stone gets so enraged at what he sees as Debby's unfaithfulness -- the fact that she's talking with a police detective doesn't help, either -- that he picks up a pot of hot coffee, and throws it on her, scalding her and scarring her for life. Debby doesn't get that furious, but more calculating, and she is able to exact a measure of revenge on two of the people involved in the case in scenes of wonderful turnabout. If the first half of the movie belongs to Glenn Ford, the second is taken over by Grahame, with support from Marvin throughout.

Fritz Lang directed The Big Heat, one of the great crime dramas ever put out by Hollywood. It's got good performances by the sturdy Ford (seen here tucking his daughter into bed in an early scene), the beautiful Grahame, and the vicious Marvin; and good writing, with a plot that, while having twists and turns, has nothing that comes out of left field: everything fits together coherently within the structure of the story. It's available on DVD, and is well worth finding.

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