The Big Heat Screen 7 articles

The Big Heat

1953

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  • It's unfortunate that his latest film should have passed almost unnoticed. For it is an extremely good thriller, distinguished by precisely those virtues which Lang’s pictures have in the past few years so painfully lacked: tautness and speed; modesty of intention; intelligent, craftsman-like writing. Above all, it is directed with a dramatic incisiveness, a sharp-edged observation that keeps the pitch of interest and excitement continuously high.

  • Fritz Lang’s direction is based upon conventions of classical narrative cinema, but is exceptionally disciplined. His mise en scène uses perceptible (“arbitrary”) camera moves to explore dramatic space but favours unobtrusive (“motivated”) camera moves to adjust to characters’ moves. Lang is a master of the unobtrusive camera move, excelled perhaps only by Otto Preminger at his best.

  • Lang may be underrated as a director of women: His three films with Joan Bennett remain exceptional in their three-dimensional in their exploration of the actress's intelligence, confidence and vulnerability, and he achieves similar feats with Gloria Grahame here. Notwithstanding her performance in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, this may be Grahame's most iconic performance. Regardless, it's the beating heart of an often-despairing film.

  • Took a while for Ford's extraordinary performance to register, and for me to recognize how inhuman Bannion subsequently becomes... Was struck this time around by Lang's superb use of sets and/or locations, from the cluttered junkyard where Bannion seeks out "Slim" (finding instead a guy so fat that his ass drips over the little stool on which he perches) to Vince's spacious modernist apartment, where everyday household items become weapons.

  • Even when handed the most generic material, Lang could conjure a remarkable atmosphere from Hollywood sets, making their artifice feel like a distant dream. But The Big Heat was also one of the few times he was also handed an outstanding screenplay. And from it, he directed his American masterpiece and one of the greatest of all post-war noirs.

  • A less observant admirer of, say, Lang's haunting and more outwardly visually extravagant M might find The Big Heat formally routine by comparison, direct and concerned mostly with plotting. But this directness is where Lang's American formalism blooms. Much of The Big Heat is composed of close-ups of the faces of the primary characters, which alternate with rhythmic exactitude.

  • Familiar as the plot may be, Lang renders it with lacerating fury, geometric precision, and a strong stomach: it’s the genuine tenderness of the domestic scenes that gives the more savage moments their sting.

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