Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat opens on an image of a gun on a desk. A man standing behind the desk grasps the weapon and raises it to his head, pulling the trigger. Throughout this curt sequence, we only see the desk, the gun, the man’s hand, the back of his head, and a stuffed envelope that’s intended to explain his actions, which will promptly be confiscated and hidden by another character. This death sets forth a scuttling of human insects, illuminating the already pitifully obvious collusion existing between the unnamed city’s government and the closest its criminal empire has to “old” money, which are the prosperous businessmen who made their wealth a few decades prior, selling booze and killing rivals during Prohibition, laundering their blue-collar viciousness into white-collar “respectability.”
Much has been understandably made of Lang’s cultural heritage—of his having to flee Nazi Germany. These events have been offered as partial correlations to the obsession that Lang’s films have with micro societies that exist within a mainstream macro, seeking either to overthrow the latter or coexist insidiously alongside it. This coalition of personal biography and artistic preoccupation is logical as far as it goes. But the effectiveness of this theme in the director’s American work resides in Lang’s mastery of succinct poetry—in his parring of his earlier expressionism to embody the caged passions of his characters.
A less observant admirer of, say, Lang’s haunting and more outwardly visually extravagant M might find The Big Heat formally routine by comparison, direct and concerned mostly with plotting. But this directness is where Lang’s American formalism blooms. Much of The Big Heat is composed of close-ups of the faces of the primary characters, which alternate with rhythmic exactitude. There are also tight medium shots, often of collections of people within small rooms, in which the camera is perched somewhat at an angle, emphasizing a diagonal sharpness across the image, intensifying an impression of constriction, tension, and aggression. All these images are clothed in gorgeously virtuosic shadow.
There isn’t an ounce of fat on this film, and, for Lang and screenwriter Sydney Boehm, conventional human sentiment is often considered fat. The Big Heat is a feast of resonant terseness, and its subject is ultimately what’s pointedly missing from it until the heartbreaking ending: sullied, qualified compassion, in a prosperous world with a foundation deeply eaten up by hypocrisy and corruption. Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is so intent on bringing his wife’s inadvertent killers to justice that he overlooks the needs of a woman who will soon die for him: Debbie Marsh (Gloria Grahame), the moll of gangster Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who’s the henchman of the big bad, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). When Debbie is brutally assaulted, Bannion initially, chillingly, only sees how her damage will influence his campaign of vengeance.
Lang doesn’t make a pretense of decrying vengeance, and he doesn’t valorize it either, offering it up matter-of-factly as shit that happens. Every character in the film shares Lang’s frankness, his forwardness, which refuses to apologize for human will. This bracing maturity might also be linked to the artist’s real experience with fascism: He accepts chaos as inherent, and he has no patience for children’s piety. The Big Heat is truly a hard-boiled film, and its nastiness cleanses the noir of the masculine self-pity that often lards the genre. These men aren’t victims or patsies, particularly of women, who are endlessly destroyed in this film; they’re vicious movers and shakers who go to war purposefully, for their own reasons.
Lang’s mercilessness, which is a closeted, neurotic, unresolved form of humanism, coaxes his audience’s guard down for the vulnerable kill of the ending, in which Debbie’s needs and disappointments are briefly, truly seen, by both Lang and Bannion. Dying on a fur coat, her instrument of her living—her sexiness—cruelly tarnished by abuse, Debbie asks Bannion about his wife, wishing to die with an image of a woman who made it into the sort of “mainstream” society that eluded her. Bannion yearns for his wife himself, of course, and this masterpiece’s one true moment of human communion is achieved when two characters, from opposing castes, realize that they’re both chasing the same damn dream of belonging, which they both understand to have blown irrevocably away.
The image is a little soft here and there, but it’s generally clean and impressive, with lustrous whites and velvety, nuanced blacks. Said cleanness of the image bolsters the sense of interplay between the foreground and background of the shots, which is always intensely important to Fritz Lang’s films, as they’re often parables of community at war with itself. (Put broadly, the various planes of the imagery could be said to embody respective, conflicting factions of society.) Facial details are densely rendered, which is also pivotal to preserving the impact of such an extreme study of faces. The soundtrack swiftly, gracefully balances the important background noises (the simmering of coffee, the humming of a crowd in a bar) with the foreground of the score and the dialogue. In other words, all elements are in harmony in this attractive restoration of one of the great American films.
This package is an ideal example of offering a few astutely produced and selected supplements that manage to say more about the film in question than any number of arbitrarily assembled puff pieces ever could. Firstly and most importantly, there’s the audio commentary with the reliably passionate and astute film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, who’re joined here by the historian and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Their commentary ideally balances the tangential (riffing on the careers of nearly every actor in the film) with the structured (Lang’s history and artistic preoccupations; the circular, temporal-loop shape of the narrative). Kirgo is particularly fascinating when riffing on the film’s portrayals of toxic masculinity, observing the protagonist’s pronounced indifference to the suffering his vigilante tactics wreak, which is entirely born by the women of the film.
The featurettes with filmmakers Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese are short, but allow the artists to communicate the individual ways this film affected them. Mann, complementing Kirgo’s sentiments, observes that the women, while abused, also have an agency that’s unusual for an American film. (Only the women die, but they’re also always revealed to be pulling the highest strings. Both the protagonist and the antagonist are haunted, and driven, by dead women.) Scorsese, unsurprisingly given his own obsessions, homes in on how the hero’s quest warps him, and perceptively acknowledges the film’s formalism to be both "flat" and expressionist at once, which is probably the key to its weird power. Rounding out the package are the original theatrical trailer, an essay by Kirgo, and an isolated score track.
Twilight Time honors this lean and hard American classic the right way: with pristine preservation and correspondingly rich and efficient supplements.