TCM is running it again December 20, and you might want to check it out.
My first thought after a few days of wall-to-wall Bogart and Cagney was “Who cares about Glenn Ford?” and while I still don’t care about Glenn Ford, The Big Heat is a surprisingly powerful proto-L.A. Confidential about suffocating city-wide corruption.
I don’t startle easily but years before Hitchcock killed off his leading lady in Psycho, this movie features a shocking death that’s very un-1950s. But then, this is the 1950s of Fritz Lang, and “it’s Chinatown,” etc. Lots of twists, action and great dialogue.
Gloria Graham steals the movie as the vain moll who suffers what seems to her to be a fate worse than death — career-ending facial disfigurement. Graham had a habit of stealing movies: her annoying yet endearing Southern belle in The Bad and the Beautiful — one of the best supporting female performances in movie history — for which she received a well-deserved Oscar.
Grahame was fast earning a reputation as the screen’s number one hard-luck dame, or as she called herself, “Miss Obituary.” She fell victim to a plane crash in The Bad and the Beautiful, a crazed driver in Sudden Fear (1952), and a pot of boiling coffee in The Big Heat. Lang had carefully set up the latter scene. As Grahame and Marvin argue, the camera picks up shots of a glass coffee pot boiling furiously on a hot plate – hotter than any sane person would ever want it to be. When Marvin picks up the pot and hurls it in Grahame’s face, the camera focuses on his reaction, a face of pure evil that allows the viewer to imagine more suffering than Lang could ever have shown. But years later, he had to laugh at the illogic of the scene. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he said, “I wonder how many women who have thrown hot coffee in their husbands’ faces were very disappointed with the result and said, ‘Lang is a lousy director.'”