A Last Gasp of Noir Air: The Big Heat

I think of the original film noir era reaching its pinnacle in the forties, getting less and less subtle and losing a little bit of quality as everyone jumped on the bandwagon late in the decade and in the fifties. They are still more interesting to me than, say, Westerns, but they aren’t up to the standards of the great early efforts. I didn’t even like Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce that much.

Every so often, however, a later film struck gold. Whether through genius or coincidence, they managed to bring back some of the freshness (albeit none of that classic Bogart-noir feeling) of the early noir era. The Big Heat is one of those films.

Now, today, we’re inundated with revenge films in which a man (or Uma Thurman) goes out on a binge killing the people who’ve wronged her. Interestingly, that made the pivotal scene, the one that changes this one from a police film to a revenge film, seem inevitable… but audiences in the 1950s would not have seen it coming, and the shock value lifts this one out of the crowd.

It’s a Hays-era film, of course, which mans that the good guy doesn’t just gun down the bad guys, but other than that, it establishes the template for the “cop gives up his badge and takes down the mean people” film for decades to come.

Fast-paced, well-written and well-directed (by Fritz Lang, no less) The Big Heat holds up well even today. It’s a definite keeper, and should be watched whenever the opportunity arises.

Having said that, the feel of it is just so different from classic noir. I suppose my problem is that, to me, classic noir is the Maltese Falcon, and the aesthetic should always be that of the final scene of Casablanca, so I’m hard to please. This film might be just a few years removed from those classics, but it feels decades away. The vibe of the older films was somewhere in the prewar decades, while The Big Heat is firmly grounded in the 1950s.

It also has one foot in the 1970s. Why? Lee Marvin, that’s why. He’s one of the major antagonists in the flick, but he will always be part of The Dirty Dozen in my mind. So yeah, I could never quite put this one in that “classic noir” basket which holds space in my head that can never cross over with the seventies. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but watch it anyway.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, Timeless, takes the genre into the modern age. Fast-paced, sexy and set in the world of international smuggling as seen from southern Europe, it will keep you turning pages. You can check it out here.

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