The Big Heat is both an archetypal Fifties crime film and the finest work of Fritz Lang in that decade. It is typical of the period in its concern with the spread of organized crime and its involvement with police and judicial corruption. 'Hoodlum empires' and their paid cops had been highlighted by the investigations of the Kefauver Committee and recurred throughout the decade in such films as The Captive City, Kansas City Confidential (both 1952), Illegal and The Phenix City Story (both 1955).
The Big Heat's principal protagonists, Mike Lagana and Dave Bannion, are classic crime-film 'types'. Lagana is outwardly a prosperous and respected Italian-American businessman. Behind this facade, however, he is a ruthless crime tsar, prepared to eliminate anyone standing in his way. He has the Police Commissioner in his pocket and can even use the police force to obstruct Bannion's investigations.
Bannion is the disgusted and embittered cop who turns in his badge and works as a lone avenger outside the law. At one stage he is aided by what is in effect a private army, as ex-service friends of his wife's brother turn out, armed to the teeth, to mount guard on Bannion's daughter and, if need be, fight off the gangsters.
The suicide of Sergeant Tom Duncan, with which the film opens, sets up an atmosphere of violence that envelopes the film. Although some of the incidents are reported rather than seen, the prevailing mood is one of heightened brutality, as expressed by the scalding coffee Vince throws at Debbie, the car-bombing, and various vicioius beatings and gunfights. The Big Heat signals the gradual move in the cinema from implied or understated violence in the films of the Thirties and Forties to the more graphic and explicit violence of the Sixties and Seventies.
The film is also characteristic of Fritz Lang in its preoccupation with the themes of hate, murder and revenge, in the sinister influence of a secret organization and its depiction of a nightmare world of treachery, corruption and violence. Lang wove these ideas into a work strongly representative of American society and its concerns in the Fifties. All the conditions that gave rise to the McCarthyite witch-hunts are reflected in the film: the insecurity lying behind apparent prosperity; righteous indignation that bubbles over into vigilante action; a deep concern with the pervasive spread of corruption; and the paranoid fear of conpsiracy.
The terse dialogue of The Big Heat was vividly scripted by Sidney Boehm, himself a former crime reporter. The directorial style is forceful and direct; the tempo fast and unrelenting. Lang summarized his approach to the film years later when he said:
'You show the protagonist so that the audience can put themselves under the skin of the man. First of all, I use my camera in such a way as to show things, wherever possible, from the viewpoint of the protagnist; in that way the audience identifies itself with the character on the screen and thinks with him.'
Lang constructed the film in order to build up tension:
'Glenn Ford sits and plays with his child; the wife goes out to put the car into the garage. Explosion. By not showing it, you first have the shock. What is it? Ford runs out. He cannot even open the car. He sees only catastrophe. Immediately (because they see it through his eyes) the audience feels with him.'
The acting is superb. Glenn Ford combines the tenacious professionalism and rock-hard integrity of the dedicated cop with a deep vulnerability and the sensitivity of a bruised romantic striving to maintain ideals in a concrete jungle full of viperous criminals. His anguish at the murder of his wife is almost tangible; his burning desire for revenge infectious. Gloria Grahame is perfect as the gangster's moll who ultimately brings down the criminal empire; her bitter wisecracks mirror her inner conflict between desire for the luxury which her lifestyle brings her and contempt for the men she associates with. Alexander Scourby's smooth, omnipotent crime boss, Lee Marvin's psychopathic henchman and Jeanette Nolan's coldly corrupt widow, handsomely paid for keeping quiet about her husband's association with the syndicate, are all forceful studies in depravity. The Big Heat is a film of consistent and continuing power.