Tuesday, March 2, 2010

1953: The Big Heat (Fritz Lang)

1953: The Big Heat (Fritz Lang)

THE noir that first hooked me on the genre.  

I first saw this one as part of a Fritz Lang retrospective, curated by Lang authority Bernard Eisenschitz at the amazing Lux cinema in Caen, France.  I believe Eisenschitz screened every single Lang film over the course of a month.  But since it was 1994, and I was still early in my cinephile awareness, I didn't realize the magnitude of the opportunity.  I think this was the only Lang film I went and saw.

I mentioned in my Out of the Past post that I was a fan of noir for several reasons.  One is I like the complex and mysterious stories of many of the genre's key films.  But even more important, I like the rawness and the certain brutal honesty that these films seem to have. When I first saw The Big Heat, I remember being absolutely jolted by its car explosion and "incident" with Gloria Grahame.  At the time, it was the most unfiltered violence I'd ever seen on screen.  Or, if not, it certainly felt that way.

I think many people in their angst years -- teens, maybe early twenties, maybe forever -- gravitate towards those things that would never appeal to their parents (I've loved The Beastie Boys, for instance, most of my life).  The Big Heat (and later, noir in general) was the first cinematic equivalent of this for me.  Sure, I liked the characters, the filmmaking, the stories.  But what I particularly responded to was its lack of sentimentality.  It was angry, pissed off, and what was important was expressing these feelings.  These feelings made sense to me.   And seeing them played out on screen, without any edge taken off, felt more real than most of what I'd seen up to that point. 

I still love this film.  It's cold, mean, and unapologetic.  But just spend five minutes looking into Lang's life, and you'll understand why.  

Other contenders for 1953: As with other years, I have gaps in 1953.  These include:  Federico Fellini's I vitelloni, Phil Karlson's 99 River Street, Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright and Mogambo, Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker, Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess, George Stevens' Shane (yes, I admit it!), and Charles Walters' Dangerous When Wet.  I really need to re-watch both Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story.  At this point, I'm unsure of where they would place on a favorites list as it's been too long since I've seen either.  The films that I really like this year are Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur, Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street, William Wyler's Roman HolidayHoward Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity. Meanwhile, my closest runner-up, with its harrowing action and great Yves Montand performance, is Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear.

11/28/10 I watched Billy Wilder's Stalag 17.  Wilder gives Holden a great hero role, and some of the subtext on resourcefulness and free enterprise is interesting.  But all in all, not near as enjoyable and as full of memorable characters as other similar movies like The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone.  

11/30/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess.  A Hitch film, full of complex exposition and various plot twists.  Some logic could be contested, but it gets into some fairly interesting psychological areas. All in all, not fully satisfying, but full of examples of Hitch's wonderful eye and cinematic flair.  

12/3/10 I watched Charles Walters' Dangerous When Wet.  An odd film, part Preston Sturges, part Hollywood '50s Technicolor marvel. Zany, screwball-ish, but with an unexpected emotionality towards the end.   

12/4/10 I watched Federico Fellini's I vitelloni.  By this point, Fellini has clearly moved away from his neo-realist beginnings.  It's a film with some excellent scenes, particularly the one with Fausto at the movie theater.  But all in all, it just didn't carry me emotionally in the way that I would have hoped.

12/5/10 I watched John Ford's Mogambo.  A flawed film, certainly.  But a fever dream of a flick, with the painfully beautiful Grace Kelly, and some of the most suspenseful scenes in the history of cinema involving animals and humans.  Nice to see Ford taking a break from the Irish thing and delivering this complex tale.  

3/29/11 I watched Phil Karlson's 99 River Street.  Some striking photography and location work.  I also thought John Payne's quite good.  Evelyn Keyes, however, doesn't totally work for me, and the plot only seems somewhat satisfying.  

10/24/11 I watched Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker.  A gritty, ultra low-budget noir with some nice, expressionistic touches.  But the limited budget makes its storytelling ultimately a little underwhelming.  

8/11/13 I watched John Huston's Beat the Devil.  Kael was a huge fan, and it does conform to her fondness for a certain looseness and bubbly tone.  It is harmless enough, but I quickly found its freewheeling nature devoid of too much of any real entertainment or substantive value.  

11/23/13 I watched Andre De Toth's House of Wax.  An obviously very unique storyline and there are some wonderful moments including the tension-filled climax at the museum.  But not completely my thing and even though De Toth proves himself very adept at the material I was more in admiration than in thrall.

3/12/16 I rewatched Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de....  A film that above all is classy which is a word that for me describes all that might be deficient about current times.  What is class?  It has to do with restraint (even the title is restrained depriving us of the Madame's full name).  It has to do with refined, developed taste.  In Ophuls' case, the way he puts the sets together, the way the camera slinks around for the entire film, and the way he dutches the camera at certain moments selectively and with purpose.  Class is almost every one of De Sica's movements and gestures, and it's the sophistication of approach and intellect in every frame of this Ophuls masterwork.      

5/1/16 I watched Ida Lupino's The Bigamist.  Whereas in some of her other work, I was impressed by Lupino's Wellesesque expressive camerawork, here what most jumped out were the performances, O'Brien's and most of all Lupino's herself.  A daring film for its time, patiently observed and stood up by its humanism.  

1/7/17 I watched Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon.  It was the first time I had seen it since I first saw it at Cafe des Images in Herouville, France in 1994 or 1995.  Minnelli has a huge reputation (I love Some Came Running, this film is considered one of the very best musicals (I love a number of them) and one of the very best Astaire films (I am a huge fan of Top Hat and Swing Time).  I did not fall for it back in '94 or '95 and again I failed to connect to it in the same way I relate to my favorite films of the genre.  None of the numbers give me that rush and boost of adrenaline I get from my favorite musical moments and I just do not feel Astaire's plight in the same way I do in some of his earlier work.  

4/30/17 I watched Josef von Sternberg's Anatahan.  It has only been 20+ years since I first heard of the film and have been wanting to see it ever since.  It belongs in that special category of master director's final films and it has that same odd tone of finality of Dreyer's Gertrud and perhaps even Bresson's L'argent.  It is a mood film dripping with atmosphere and style and succeeds in throwing the viewer into its exotic land and bringing the strangeness terrifically alive.  Sternberg excelled at this type of cinema that also includes Macao and Morocco.  

7/11/18 I watched Jean Rouch's Mammy Water.  Reminiscent of Visconti's La terra trema, this early Rouch film is impressive in how consistent it is already with Rouch's later style and work.  But it does not reach the heights of what I have seen from some of his greatest work.

1/1/20 I watched Jean Gremillon's The Love of a Woman.  I sought it out since it was one of the films on Les Inrockuptibles' list of 100 Most Beautiful French Films.  It has a certain weight to it, mostly due to its silences and remote island setting.  But it also felt ominous throughout in ways that, by the end, because of a lack of any major event (other than of course the main relationship in the film), felt more frustrating and unnecessary than effective.  It is of interest as an early French film about the evolving place of the woman in society.  

7/2/20 I watched Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck.  It's cute and creative but I never emotionally got into it at all.

11/25/22 I watched Michelangelo Antonioni's The Lady Without Camelias.  An interesting early Antonioni that has glimpses of the work he'd come to be known for in the sixties.  Very disillusioned in its outlook, more so than any of the work I've seen of his peers from this period.  

2/5/23 I watched John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright.  I have been watching more John Ford of late than I ever have and it is clear I am only beginning to scratch the surface of who he was as a filmmaker.  What seems clear to me at this point is that he was deeply interested in America, where we had been and where we might be going.  He wanted to tell our history, examine it, and expose our people for the times they fought for unjust causes.  The more I watch, the more Ford seems like the narrative version of Wiseman, a filmmaker deeply concerned with our institutions and the very foundation on which this country is supposed to rest.

8/5/23 I watched George Cukor's The Actress.  Far from the very top tier of Cukor's work yet there are still wonderful passages where you appreciate Cukor's sense of wonder about his performers and the freedom and space he was willing to give their work.


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1953:

    Tokyo Story (Ozu; Japan)


    Madame De (Ophuls; France)
    Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi; Japan)
    I Vittelloni (Fellini; Italy)
    Hobson's Choice (Lean; UK)
    The Big Heat (Lang)
    A Japanese Tragedy (Kinoshita; Japan)
    The Naked Spur (Mann)
    Shane (Stevens)
    Barabbas (Sjoberg)
    The Band Wagon (Minnelli)
    Gate of Hell (Kinugasa; Japan)
    Julius Caesar (Mankiewitz)
    Pickup on South Street (Fuller)
    I Confess (Hitchcock)
    The Wages of Fear (Clouzot)

    MADAME DE would be my #1 film in just about any year except for this one and next one (where Mizoguchi's SANSHO THE BAILIFF is at the top, and maybe for all-time too) Ozu's film rates for me among the greatest of all-time, and is a sattering work of humanism. However THE BIG HEAT, your own choice here is one of my favorites by him, and it may well be his best American film. I simply adore it. I think you nailed it when you say it's "cold, mean and apologetic."

  2. Sam, thanks so much for the excellent comments! I have MADAME DE... on 1952. I hate that this date thing can be so arbitrary but anyway in case you were wondering where it was on my list, it's in my previous post.

    I love that you love the Lang film, and I might very well agree with you that it's my favorite of all his American films. The closest contender for me would be YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE.

    Thanks so much, Sam. Always a treat to have your incredible knowledge here!

  3. Jeffrey, “The Big Heat” is absolutely one of the great noir films and Lang has made quite a few excellent works. If I had to pick my favorite Lang film it would be between this one and “Scarlet Street.” Never a big fan of Glenn Ford (too vanilla) in this film he gets down and dirty. Gloria Grahame is one of noir great femme fatales and the “scene” you mention with Lee Marvin was so brutal for its time. Probably my number two pick for the year.

    I have to go with “From Here to Eternity” an excellent adaptation of James Jones massive novel. The performances in this film are just stunning, Lancaster as the stoic, hard ass Army career soldier gives one of his best performances without any overacting. Deborah Kerr was never sexier; Ernest Borgnine is made the perfect Fatso, an nasty ugly SOB. That said, the two performances that I am in awe of are Frank Sinatra as Maggio and the great Montgomery Clift as Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a man who has to go his own way or his is nothing.

    #1 From Here to Eternity

    The Big Heat
    Pick Up on South Street
    The Naked Spur
    Stalag 17
    Wages of Fear
    The Bad and the Beautiful
    I Confess
    The Hitchhiker

    Fellini’s “Il Vitelloni” and “99 River Street” are two I need to watch.

  4. John, great comments! I love this:

    "Never a big fan of Glenn Ford (too vanilla) in this film he gets down and dirty."

    I couldn't agree more.

    Great capsule on FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, too! Another film I really love that I need to revisit at some point. James Jones' novels were the source for three films I love: the one you mention, SOME CAME RUNNING, and THE THIN RED LINE. A pretty amazing track record.

    Thanks so much, John!

  5. Jeffrey - Excellent choice and a film that will figure prominently in my noir countdown. I'm in the same boat with John... of Lang's American film, The Big Heat and Scarlet Street are definitely my favorites.

    In my own countdown, I went with MADAME DE as my number one and probably would so again. But since it's your place and you had that one as 1952, I'll go with that -- it'll be more fun and allow me choose another film instead! LOL

    So, after my recent rave over Some Came Running, I'll side with John and go with another James Jones story, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. With Madame De out of the way, the other contenders would be The Big Heat, The Wages of Fear, and Stalag 17. But for now, I'll take a flyer, and go with another Monty Clift movie.

  6. Dave, great stuff! I'm loving your noir countdown and look forward to reading your post on THE BIG HEAT.

    You'll hear no argument from me on FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. I really love that film, too.

    And thanks for going with me on the alternate MADAME DE... placement. I'm trying my best to get these years straight :)

    Always great to have you here. Thanks, Dave!