Duncan, an apparently on the level cop, sits in his office, places a gun to his temple and pulls the trigger. When his wife (Jeanette Nolan) walks into the room to see what the noise was, she doesn't scream but calmly picks up the telephone and calls the first man on her mind, pillar of the community Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) to break the news to him: chiefly that Duncan's suicide note is a five page confession about police corruption. This is a subject close to Lagana's heart, because he is the man who has the police wrapped around his little finger, but one good sergeant, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is going to prove difficult to persuade...
The Big Heat is usually lumped in with all the film noirs of the forties and early fifities, but actually it was closer to one of the expose films of the decade, where all that real life corruption was headline news. It was one of director Fritz Lang's most typical movies, concerning as it does one man's descent into the dark side, and adapted by Sydney Boehm from the William P. McGivern Saturday Evening Post serial. Although it has plenty of fans, it's a fairly glum experience to watch and despite its rays of light shining through the gloom, it's that dark side you'll take away from it.
One of the reasons it became notorious when it was first released was down to the film's violence, at the time strong stuff. Nowadays, Ford punching out various bad guys seems tame, but there's a strain of physical aggression towards its female characters that is still unsettling, in particular the fate of one character who dares to go behind her gangster boyfriend's back and talk with Bannion. Even before we reach that stage, the centre of America - its supposedly safe family home - is invaded by evil when the bad guys decide Bannion is getting too close to the truth.
Bannion is welcomed home at the end of every day by his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando, yes, Marlon Brando's sister) and his young daughter, a relief from all the grim crime he has to deal with at work. Yet as he digs deeper into the murder of a prostitute who was having an affair with Duncan, Lagana and his gang, helped by right hand psychopath Vince Stone (Lee Marvin on threatening form) tighten the screws on him until the unthinkable happens and Katie is murdered with a bomb meant for Bannion.
After that the paranoia takes hold and it seems as if Lagana's organisation has its tentacles stretching all around the city, with Bannion hitting brick walls at every turn. And as he grows more frustrated, the more like his foes he becomes, relying on menace to get his way - Ford plays the cop as a man whose heart is turning to ice. However, Vince's moll Debby (one of Hollywood's true eccentric stars, Gloria Grahame) heads a fight back to show Bannion that there are still pockets of decency willing to stand up to Lagana. Not everyone goes as far as Debby does, as she transforms into Bannion's hand of vengeance, but every so often someone will support the hero with information or protection so he doesn't lose his soul to violence. The message is that there are moral members of society left, but the easy bleakness in the story is what you remember.
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.