The Big Heat

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The Big Heat
The Big Heat (1953 poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFritz Lang
Screenplay bySydney Boehm
Based onthe Saturday Evening Post serial and 1953 novel
by William P. McGivern
Produced byRobert Arthur
CinematographyCharles Lang
Edited byCharles Nelson
Color processBlack and white
Columbia Pictures
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • October 14, 1953 (1953-10-14) (New York City)
Running time
90 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.25 million (US)[2]

The Big Heat is a 1953 American film noir crime film directed by Fritz Lang starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Jocelyn Brando[3] about a cop who takes on the crime syndicate that controls his city. William P. McGivern's serial in The Saturday Evening Post, published as a novel in 1953, was the basis for the screenplay, written by former crime reporter Sydney Boehm. The film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011.[4] [5]


Homicide detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, of the Kenport Police Department, is called to investigate the suicide of a rogue fellow officer, Tom Duncan. His wife, Bertha Duncan, says her husband had recently been in ill health. Officer Duncan left behind an envelope addressed to the district attorney, which Mrs. Duncan keeps under wraps and locks away in her safe-deposit box at the bank.

The mistress of the late cop, Lucy Chapman, contradicts Mrs. Duncan, telling Sgt. Bannion that Tom Duncan had not been in ill health, and had no reason to kill himself, but had recently agreed to a divorce with his wife. Bannion decides to revisit Duncan's widow, who resents his demand for particulars about the couple's luxurious home. The next day, Lieutenant Ted Wilks, under pressure from "upstairs" to close the case, rebuffs Bannion. Lucy Chapman is found strangled to death, her body covered with cigarette burns. Bannion investigates although the Chapman case is in the sheriff's jurisdiction. Bannion receives threatening calls at his home. He confronts Mike Lagana, the local mob boss who runs the city. He discovers that people are too scared to stand up to the crime syndicate. When Bannion ignores warnings to desist, his car is planted with explosives. The car bomb kills his wife, Katie. Accusing his superiors of corruption, Bannion chides Police Commissioner Higgins, accusing him of obeying the orders of mob boss, Michael Lagana. Higgins puts Bannion on immediate suspension and orders him to turn in his badge. Bannion is determined to find those responsible for his wife's murder and investigates every local hood in the city.

Bannion hopes to discover a lead at a nightclub called "The Retreat." When Lagana's second-in-command, Vince Stone, punishes a woman in the nightclub, burning her hand with a cigar butt, Bannion stands up to him and his thugs. This impresses Stone's girlfriend, Debby Marsh. Debby offers to buy Bannion a drink but he refuses, implying that her money comes from her hood boyfriend, Stone. Debby follows Bannion from the bar and together they take a cab to the hotel where he's now living. When Debby accidentally reminds Bannion about his late wife, he tells her he'll put her a cab. Debby reluctantly leaves and returns to Stone's penthouse. He accuses her of talking to Bannion about his activities and throws a pot of boiling coffee in her face. Police Commissioner Higgins, who had been playing poker with Stone and his group at the penthouse, takes her to a hospital.

Debby returns to Bannion at his hotel; the left side of her face badly burned and half-covered in bandages. She asks for his protection, so he puts her in a separate hotel room close to his, but unregistered to shield her whereabouts. Debby identifies the man who had arranged the planting of the bomb in Bannion's car as Larry Gordon, one of Stone's associates. She tells him Gordon is staying at the Wilton Apartments. Bannion forces Gordon to admit to the car bombing, and to reveal that Duncan's widow has incriminating documents which could implicate Stone and Lagana's mobster activities, that she's uses as blackmail. Bannion restrains himself from killing Gordon, but tells Gordon he's going to spread the word around that he talked. Afterward, Gordon is bumped off by Stone's men, and his body is thrown in the river. Bannion then confronts Mrs. Duncan, accusing her of betraying Lucy Chapman and protecting Lagana and Stone. With his hands at her throat, Bannion tells Mrs. Duncan that if she's killed, the evidence she has against Lagana will soon be revealed. But at that moment, cops sent by Lagana arrive before Bannion can follow through on his threats, so he is forced to leave.

Lagana orders Stone to kidnap Bannion's young daughter, Joyce — who's living with her aunt and uncle under police guard — and arranges for the guards to be called off, but Joyce's uncle summoned several army buddies from the war to provide extra protection. Satisfied that his daughter is in safe hands, Bannion is about to leave his daughter to deal with Stone when Lieutenant Wilks arrives, who is now prepared to take a stand against the mob. Debby goes to Mrs. Duncan and notes that the expensive mink coats that they are both wearing are thanks to their association with gangsters. When Mrs. Duncan attempts to phone Stone for help, Debby shoots her dead.

Bannion tails Stone, who returns to his penthouse. Once inside, Debby's been waiting for him. She throws boiling coffee in his face in an act of revenge. In retaliation, Stone shoots her. After a short gun battle with Bannion, Stone is captured. As Debby dies on the floor, she confesses to shooting Mrs. Duncan. Bannion describes his late wife to her in terms of endearment rather than the colorless "police description" of his wife he had given to Debby earlier. He also tells her that she and his wife would have gotten along fine. Stone is arrested for murder. Officer Duncan's damning evidence in the note he left behind for the D.A. is made public. Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted, and Sgt. Bannion is reinstated to his job as a homicide detective.



The film was based on a serial by William P. McGivern, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post from December 1952 and was published as a novel in 1953. Initially, McGivern's novel was to be produced by Jerry Wald, who wanted either Paul Muni, George Raft or Edward G. Robinson (who worked with director Fritz Lang in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) for the role of Dave Bannion. Columbia Pictures paid $40,000 for McGivern's novel. Lang directed the film while Sydney Boehm wrote it.

Boehm changed many details in the novel. Commissioner Higgins is not in the novel and Lieutenant Wilks is the corrupt policeman. An honest policeman called Cranston, who was in the novel, was omitted from the film.

In the novel, it is not known until the end that the widow of the policeman who had killed himself (named Deery in the book, Duncan in the film) was blackmailing Lagana. Debby shoots her and then mortally wounds herself. After Stone is cornered by Bannion, he is killed by another policeman. Instead of taking place in Philadelphia, the film takes place in the fictional city of Kenport.

Columbia wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part of Debby Marsh but did not want to pay the fee 20th Century Fox demanded for the loan of their star, so Gloria Grahame was cast instead.

Rex Reason was slated to play either Tierney or Detective Burke, but his agent wanted a larger part. In the end, Reason was not cast and Peter Whitney and Robert Burton got the roles of Tierney and Burke respectively.

In the scene at the bar where Stone and Bannion first meet, the house band is performing "Put the Blame on Mame," a song also heard in the 1946 noir classic Gilda, also starring Ford, and also produced by Columbia.[6]


The Academy Film Archive preserved The Big Heat in 1997.[7]

Critical response[edit]

"The... memorable violence in The Big Heat... implies that the world must be destroyed before it can be purified."

— Film historian Andrew Sarris in "You Ain’t Heard Nothin' Yet": The American Talking Film History & Memory, 1927–1949.[8]

The New York Times and Variety both gave The Big Heat very positive reviews at the time. Bosley Crowther of the Times described Glenn Ford "as its taut, relentless star" and praises Lang for bringing "forth a hot one with a sting."[9] Variety characterized Lang's direction as "tense" and "forceful."[10] Critic Roger Ebert subsequently praised the film's supporting actors and added the film to his personal canon of "Great Movies".[11]

Writer David M. Meyer states that the film never overcomes the basic repulsiveness of its hero, but notes that some parts of the film, though violent, are better than the film as a whole: "Best known is Gloria Grahame's disfigurement at the hands of psycho-thug Lee Marvin, who flings hot coffee into her face."[12]

According to film critic Grant Tracey, the film turns the role of the femme fatale on its head: "Whereas many noirs contain the tradition of the femme-fatale, the deadly spiderwoman who destroys her man and his family and career, The Big Heat inverts this narrative paradigm, making Ford [Det. Bannion] the indirect agent of fatal destruction. All four women he meets—from clip joint singer, Lucy Chapman, to gun moll Debby—are destroyed."[13]

Awards and honors[edit]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

In December 2011, The Big Heat was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.[17] Proclaiming it "one of the great post-war noir films", the Registry stated that The Big Heat "manages to be both stylized and brutally realistic, a signature of its director Fritz Lang."[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ebert, Roger (2004-06-06). "The Big Heat". The Great Movies. Retrieved 2016-06-24.
  2. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1953', Variety, January 13, 1954
  3. ^ "The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time". Paste. August 9, 2015. Retrieved August 9, 2015.
  4. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-17.
  5. ^ "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-17.
  6. ^ Blottner, Gene (2015). Columbia Pictures: A Complete Filmography, 1940-1962. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-7014-3.
  7. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  8. ^ Sarris, 1998. p.119
  9. ^ Crowther, Bosley (October 15, 1953). "The Screen In Review; 'The Big Heat' Has Premiere at the Criterion -- 'Grapes Are Ripe' Also Opens Here". New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  10. ^ Variety staff (January 1, 1953). "The Big Heat". Variety. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  11. ^ Ebert, Roger (June 6, 2004). "The Big Heat (1953)". The Chicago Sun Times.
  12. ^ Meyer, David M. (1998). A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video. Avon Books. ISBN 0-380-79067-X.
  13. ^ Tracey, Grant (January 1997). "10 Shades of Noir: The Big Heat". Images (2). Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  14. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 20, 2016.
  15. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 20, 2016.
  16. ^ a b "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on July 16, 2011. Retrieved August 20, 2016.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  17. ^ a b "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 28, 2011.


  • Sarris, Andrew. 1998. “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet.” The American Talking Film History & Memory, 1927-1949. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513426-5

External links[edit]