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Big Heat, The (Blu-ray Review)

21 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Alexander Scourby.

As character motivation goes, the movie often cited as the best of Fritz Lang’s Hollywood output must have one of the most convincingly brass-tacks explanations of them all. Direct from having ruffled the feathers of an unnamed city’s “Mr. Big,” here’s hardheaded cop Glenn Ford engaged in a benign daddy-talk respite with his very young daughter just as mommy steps on the driveway gas pedal on her way to go pick up the babysitter. Hear mommy go “Ka-boom!” (and neighborhood property values presumably plummet).

As an actor, Ford has his detractors, and there are times when I’ve been one myself. But he did have an uncommon knack for putting across postwar straight-arrow types on the verge of a nervous breakdown (which is one reason he’s so good in Blackboard Jungle). In this case, his character definitely has his mentally anguished reasons — and, matter of fact, the detective-sergeant he’s playing wasn’t all that happy about the way things were going even before the explosion. This is a movie where just about everyone in town is under the thumb of an outwardly clean power broker (Alexander Scourby), whose cotillion-type offspring and their friends (whose placid party Ford invades in one memorable scene) are above the grimy fray and likely all members of Eddie Fisher’s fan club.

Scourby is also one of those so-called honorable guys who honor his late iron-willed mother by keeping a huge oil painting of her on the wall on his den (probably in memory of her castrations). As one it’s easy to imagine putting (or even someday even receiving) the head of a dead horse in bed, Scourby is a smoothie who pulls the strings of everyone in town. It’s significant that in The Big Heat’s most famous scene — Scourby henchman Lee Marvin throwing scalding liquid into the face of his supposed girlfriend Gloria Grahame — the wuss who’s ordered to get the poor woman to the hospital is the police commissioner. He just happened to be on the scene playing cards along with some hoods, along with one or two other public servants.

Though there was almost never a movie that Grahame couldn’t perk up, this is certainly one of the actress’s best — though her boozily self-aware character is naturally more fun in the early going before Marvin does what he does (and here you thought he was violent biting the caps off beer bottles in John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef). Fairly early on, Grahame walks into Ford’s post-explosion makeshift hotel room (maybe one degree nicer than the one where Elvis resides right after he gets out of Jailhouse Rock’s pokey) and articulates a mock thumbs-up. “Early nothing,” she calls it.

Sidney Boehm’s tough screenplay is a honey — so tight that this Columbia Pictures gem runs 90 minutes (though if Hollywood did a remake today, the inevitable first step to ruination would be to have it run 117 or so). Heat opens with the suicide of a dirty cop at home, and here comes the widow (Jeanette Nolan) down the stairs to discover the body and presumably grieve. But, no. To turn the expected cliché on its ear, she is so un-sorry that she takes the suicide note that spilled the beans on all the municipal corruption and sets forth a blackmail scheme against the designated   parties so that she can keep herself in furs throughout widowhood. In her screen debut, Nolan got creamed for (badly) playing Lady you-know-who in Orson Welles’ Macbeth — a characterization my best gal-pal from high school once likened to our wimpy English teacher we had in ninth grade who wouldn’t let her own kids watch Popeye cartoons on TV because of the violence. But in this case, Nolan nails the role, proving that she could at least be in the spirit of Lady M.

Apparently, this very crisp mastering is one that Sony itself once intended to bring out itself back in greener days. Above and beyond the pro job you can almost always expect technically from a Twilight Time release, Heat is one of the all-around best movies Twilight Time has yet brought out and a Blu-ray for which fans are likely waiting. Almost all the scenes are interiors (some shadowy) or nighttime exteriors, and it’s not exactly a secret that Lang knew his way around the noir world this portends. In its day, Heat was enough of a hit for Lang to reteam Ford and Grahame the very next year for Human Desire — not as good but a better movie than its reputation (“Glenn Ford meets Emile Zola”) would indicate.

And of the nine million ‘50s films prefixed by “The Big,” this one is right up there in terms of the cream. There were so many of these, in fact, that I once saw David Letterman scanning guest Kirk Douglas’s early screen credits (The Big Carnival, The Big Trees) and questioning why 1986’s Tough Guys (which Douglas was on the show promoting) hadn’t been called “Big” Tough Guys. I think close to every ‘50s "Dragnet" episode was “The Big {Something}” as well.

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