For those who take their film black, there's The Big Heat, a noir with an infamous coffee scene that makes the film a literal potboiler. Director Fritz Lang remains best known today for the films he made in his native Germany (Metropolis and M among them), but Lang made over twenty films in Hollywood. Unfortunately, something was rotten in filmland: Lang had been targeted by HUAC during McCarthy's Red Scare, fueling the director's skepticism of the social order. Moral rot gets full play in Lang's 1953 police drama The Big Heat, which depicts a corrupt system encroaching on the pursuit of justice.
Glenn Ford plays upstanding top cop Dave Bannion, who becomes increasingly hard-bitten after his investigation of a suicide leads him to tangle with the mob. Push comes to shove with crime boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), to whom the police answer, and not the other way around. Disgusted after plumbing untold depths of corruption, Bannion refuses to let sleeping dogs lie, and pays the price. So does Debby (Gloria Grahame), the moll of a psychopathic gangster (Lee Marvin's Vince) who does Lagana's dirtiest work. Debby and Dave find themselves unlikely partners, former enemies offering aid and comfort to each other as they vengefully pursue their common foes. The process makes Debby more moral and Dave less so, with revenge being the great leveler. Though more suggestive than graphic, the film's violence (aimed as much at women as men) horrifies, and Bannion's obsessiveness complicates his heroism: he's better than the alternative, sure, but are we comfortable agreeing with him that his ends justify his means?
Grahame is indelible as the tragic, scabrous Debby, who lives above most people's illusions, while Marvin has a career breakthrough with his primal hood. Meanwhile, Ford ably projects the two faces of Bannion: the warm and loving husband and father that values his home life, and the man of duty hardened by the law of the streets. That an increasingly black-hearted Bannion is willing to sacrifice one part of his life for the other, to compromise his values to get what he wants, suggests that, in truth, he's only a stone's throw from the men he hates, making the purported restoration of moral order mandated by the Motion Picture Production Code decidedly ambiguous. For the same reason, The Big Heat hasn't dated as much as it might have: our institutions remain focused on putting their best (flat)feet forward while guarding ruthless, anything-goes autonomy. The Big Heat, has its own brand of ruthless efficiency, acting out its eighty-nine-minute morality play in glorious black and white, but with moral shades of grey.