The Big Heat is not a noir where the darkness comes from the shadowy visuals, but from within its characters themselves. In fact, some of these individuals are so subtle in their corruption that it easily gets overshadowed. Homicide cop Dave Bannion is, rather ironically, the straight-arrow trying to do what is right, and he becomes the most vengeful character in Fritz Lang’s film. It’s a subversion of the typical noir arc, because his greatest help ultimately comes from the former femme fatale. That’s not how it’s supposed to happen, but then again a lot of things happen a little differently in The Big Heat.
The film opens and within a second a man has shot himself and left a confession on his desk. The cues tell us that he’s a cop and he’s just committed suicide. His wife comes down stairs strangely composed and shuffles through the pages he has written. She goes to the phone, not to call the police, but she talks to a third party. We quickly forget what’s she’s done, but the fact is Mrs. Duncan represents the corruption that reigns supreme in this film. She’s used a juicy piece of blackmail to receive large payoffs from someone and she’s not the only sellout.
Bannion (Glen Ford) is a cop by day and a family man at night with a loving wife and a beautiful little girl. By convention he is supposed to be the moral compass of this film — the emblem of good conquering evil. He takes on the straightforward case of officer Duncan’s death, but it gets convoluted when a B girl named Lucy Chapman calls him up to say she knew the deceased, and he would never kill himself. Initially, Bannion takes little heed of this girl, because she is hardly as respectable as Mrs. Duncan, or so society says.
He gets pressure from his superior Wilks to lay off, but Bannion is discontent with loose ends, especially when he receives news that the Chapman girl has been brutally murdered. This can’t all be all coincidence, and he begins sniffing out the truth like a bloodhound. Bannion leads us into the home of this empire of crime literally. He confronts local businessman/crime boss Mike Laganna, who he accuses of involvement in the corruption. Things are beginning to heat up, and they start to infiltrate the sanctity of his home life. The dark recesses of the noir world can never be subdued, and Bannion dives deeper into the labyrinth that is created by his own obsessive vendetta. He has no tolerance for his colleagues who don’t take a stand, in favor of their pensions. He can’t stand tight-lipped locals who give him no help and most of all he hates Laganna’s guts.
At the local shady nightclub “The Retreat,” Bannion has his first run-in with the hired thug Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Afterwards Vince’s girl Debby is genuinely impressed by Bannion’s methods, but he will not give her the time of day. He expects her to be the same superficially ditsy dame that we have all seen before. Hardly a femme fatale, but still there is the potential to be deadly. The one character who seems to conform to the stereotype is Stone, and yet he is even more brutal than most, burning girls with cigarette butts and splashing scalding coffee on Debby’s face.
Bannion gets to one of the other hired guns named Larry and both Stone and Laganna decide that something must be done to stop Bannion in his tracks. The obvious target is his little girl, but this time the family life prevails over the noir world. His family and colleagues rally around him and yet Bannion is not done with his obsession.
In fact, it is Debby who actually finishes off Bannion’s work by paying a visit to Mrs. Chapman and then Vince. Bannion arrives soon after to reprimand Vince, but Debby has already done the dirty work. The nightmare is over and everything that is good and right comes to the forefront. Debby proves her allegiance, the criminals are put away, and Bannion gets a new position with the homicide department. But underlying this seemingly happy ending is still a sense of tension. The film ends as Bannion heads out on a new homicide case with the cycle continuing and it seems like he will never be free of it. The world will continue ripping away the ones he loves. Before he knows it, he will be left with only his personal vengeance to drive his future. Bannion very easily could cross the line between righteousness and corruption. He already almost strangled two characters and was not opposed to slugging it out with others. It’s only a matter of time before he totally blows his cool and collected exterior. It’s a dark assumption, but then again that is a lot of what film-noir is. Fritz Lang seems to get this and that’s what makes his characters here so powerful, because he knows that the root of all evil can be in everyone.