So, I used to watch a lot of Law and Order – a lot of actors I’ve worked with have had bit parts over the years – and still have a bit of a soft spot for police procedurals. So you’d think I’d have been more into the film noir I’ve seen thus far. I’ve been trying to figure it out myself – but I think The Big Heat helped.
Sargent Dave Banion (Glenn Ford) is a homicide detective for his city’s police force, called to investigate the crime scene when another police officer, Tom Duncan, commits suicide. His presence is a formality – the deceased clearly killed himself – but something about the circumstances don’t add up. Banion is later invited to a secret meeting with a woman claiming to be Duncan’s mistress; she’s read the newspaper accounts that Duncan shot himself because of poor health, but she knows that’s a crock since Duncan was about to divorce his wife and marry her. She reinforces Banion’s certainty that something is definitely up. But his supervising officer takes him off the case. Banion has long suspected that the police force is under the thumb of the local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), with his thug Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) enforcing obedience. So Banion is determined to pursue justice anyway – no matter the cost.
The plot in this noir is a little cleverer than others, and the women – and there’s more than one – have a good deal more agency. The scenes with Banion’s wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) are all presented with a cozy domesticity that you know is meant to represent The Way Of Life Banion Is Defending, but Katie has a refreshing sass and spunk that make her more than just another sainted-wife trope. Gloria Graham, as Debby Marsh, is even more complex – Debby is Vince’s girlfriend, and initially comes across as a something of a ninny but unfolds into a surprisingly complex character. A lot of the plot’s gears turn because of things Debby does, some of them for Banion and some of them for herself.
In fact, compared to the women, Banion comes across as a little one-note; “obsessive cop in pursuit of justice” is a trope I’ve seen a lot, and it’s a trope that pales in comparison to “mob moll who figures out how to blackmail the blackmailer and sets that up with time to spare so she can get revenge on her crummy ex”. (And even more refreshing – even though there’s opportunity for Debby and Banion to hook up, they don’t – and it’s not because of the Hays Code, it’s because Banion just plain doesn’t wanna.)
Possibly this worked so well because Fritz Lang is at the helm. You’ll remember I really liked his previous police procedural, M – Lang may simply have had a knack for this genre, knowing how to elevate it from a basket of tropes into a genuine story.