Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Big Heat

The Big Heat, which was recently revived as part of the Fritz Lang series at Film Forum, is the prototypic film noir, almost an essay in the genre, using actors—Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame—whose personas perfectly embody the Pulcinellas and Harlequins of this sour commedia dell’arte. The self-consciousness of the form, and the way in which it footnotes its own provenance and lays the path for posterity, with cops and villains out of central casting, is key to understanding the film’s conviction. Quentin Tarantino is a master of this cinematic music in the meta film noirs he creates in movies like Pulp Fiction, which by the way have no monopoly on either humor or grotesquery, as evidenced in Lang’s effort. A B-girl named Lucy Chapman (Deborah Green) is burned with cigarettes, tortured and murdered. Gloria Grahame’s character Debby Marsh has half of her face burned off and gets her vengeance by reciprocating the favor on her thug lover Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). But there is no shortage of one-liners, sometimes of an uproarious nature, amidst the bleak landscape. Walking into Glenn Ford’s hotel room, Grahame comments, “Say, I like this, early nothing,” and says that her scar-face is “not so bad…it’s only on one side” and that now she can look at the world “sideways.” Grahame actually acts as the soothsayer, the drunken Tiresias of the film, popping out with aphorisms while defying gravitas. Of course the greatest influence on Fritz Lang’s work in The Big Heat is Lang himself. You don’t have the shadows of M; in fact, the film, and in particular a timeless scene in a nightclub called The Retreat where mobsters hang out, is full of light. But it’s a glaring light, the cosmopolitan light of Metropolis, which is recalled in one character's soliloquy, set against an iconic cityscape of towering skyscrapers that juxtapose cozy images of corruption with the juggernaut of impersonality.

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