No way can I write about The Big Heat without exposing a few of the great surprises it holds in store, so be warned, there be spoilers ahead. In fact, it’s a significant film, both for me and for cinema in general, in part because of these moments, which whether in or out of context of the era are profoundly shocking. It looks at first as if Fritz Lang is overplaying the American dream as Dave Bannion’s adoring wife fauns over him as he comes home from work, but that makes it all the more shocking when he blows that dream (and the car, and the wife) to smithereens, raising the stakes mighty high early on and giving Bannion every reason in the world to pursue justice by any means necessary. The car bombing is unique in film noir as it’s a personal assault of a nature that’s not previously been seen. Sure Sam Spade loses his partner Miles Archer at the outset of The Maltese Falcon, but their bond is professional at best and we never think that Spade could be deeply affected by the loss of anyone, whereas family man Bannion becomes a loner only when that which he loves most is ripped away from him. In a genre that thrives on the emotional distance of its leading characters, The Big Heat is the rare film that gives us a reason for such a lifestyle.
Yet even after that explosive first act, it’s hard to brace yourself for what’s to come. The legendary hot coffee scene, in which Lee Marvin’s brutal gangster scalds and disfigures his brazen girlfriend Debby, played by Gloria Grahame, surely must be the most raw act of sadism to occur under the guise of the Production Code. It strikes a nerve, and if In a Lonely Place weren’t enough, seals Grahame’s reputation as noir’s great tragic figure. Like Bannion she’s damaged, in her case physically as well as emotionally, and it’s not hard to see what draws them to each other. Their alliance seems a perfect one, but Debby fights with the reckless abandon of a woman with nothing left to lose while Bannion must consider the safety of his child. It’s ending seems inevitable from a mile out, but impending doom becomes easier to swallow when taken with sweet revenge. Lang remains unflinching to the very end, capping of a showdown of primal intensity with a most mundane scene of Bannion back at the office, presented with the blisteringly ironic offer for a cup of coffee.