Several things make this an overlooked movie for me. I’d never heard of it before a local station ran it on their Hi–Def channel. I’ve never seen Glen Ford play quite as dangerous a character. And third, I can’t recall ever seeing Lee Marvin with anything but that white mop on his head. Considered a classic, Roger Ebert apparently lists in among his great movies. That I never heard of it before might say something about me more so than the movie really being overlooked. Based on a novel by William P. McGivern, THE BIG HEAT is the story of a cop chasing the truth in a town owned by a gangster.
A cop, Tom Duncan, commits suicide as the movie opens. There’s no question of that. never is. Mrs. Duncan runs downstairs and finds him, as well as a letter under his badge. Upon reading it, the first thing she does is call a hood named Mike Lagana(Alexander Scourby), the power broker in the city, telling him they need to meet. Lagana tells her to call the police and when they arrive, she’s all tearful, upset that her husband’s dead. There is no letter. She says he’d been worried about his health lately.
Detective. Sgt. Dave Bannion arrives to take charge of the case. Cut and dried, he’s ready to sign off until he meets a young woman named Lucy Chapman that had called in. She says there was nothing wrong with the dead cop’s health, they were in love, and he was going to divorce his wife for her. Bannion dismisses her, thinking it’s some sort of angle until he learns her body was found by the side of the road out in the county, tortured and strangled.
Bannion re-interviews the wife, “to tie up some loose ends,” and gets an admission that the woman was the fourth “Lucy Chapman” since they’d been married, all she knew about anyway. But they weren’t getting divorced.
Heat starts coming down on him the next day. His boss, Lt. Ted Wilks(Willis Bouchey), suggests he let it go and stop bothering the widow. When he resists, saying he’s just closing things, he’s suddenly ordered to stop.
He doesn’t of course.
A visit to Bannion’s home, amidst a party of his daughter’s(complete with a dozen uniformed policemen guarding them), doesn’t go well. The hood doesn’t allow business, the dirt of the city, to come to his home and he’s really pissed.
Enter Vince Stone(Lee Marvin), his sadistic second in command. Stone likes beating up women and is told to take care of Bannion.
The violence ramps up when a bomb meant for Bannion kills his wife, Katie(Jocelyn Brando). Bannion goes on a rampage, intent on getting the ones responsible. He knows who, all the way up to the Police commissioner, and intends on bringing down them all. It gets worse when the police guard is taken off his daughter so that they’ll have a lever against him. Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, the happy-go-lucky lush girlfriend of Marvin’s character(her best line is, “I’ve been rich, I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.”), loving the money until Stone disfigures her in a moment of all to frequent violence, coming over to Bannion’s side. He hides her from Stone while hunting for the actual killer, a little creep named Larry Gordon(Adam Williams).
Ford running around in a trench coat, nearly losing control a time or two, hands around the widow’s neck, before reigning it in(he is Glen Ford of course) is worth watching by itself. But Lee Marvin’s psycho gangster is what made the picture for me. As mentioned earlier, I’d never seen him with dark hair. Carolyn Jones of later Munsters fame has a small part and there are a number of those faces that you know but can’t put names to sprinkled throughout the film.
A nice littlebit of film noir that surprised me with the ending, directed by Fritz Lang from the screenplay by Sydney Boehm, writer of some of my favorite films(When Worlds Collide, the Tall Men, Rough Night In Jericho, and also working in a number of TV series, Fonda’s The Smith Family and The Naked City, among others. I think I need to find the novel.
Below is link to a clip of the trailer.
For more overlooked stuff, check out SWEET FREEDOM.