Police officer Duncan, of a crooked police department, commits suicide, leaving a note outlining department corruption, including the close relationship between mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scokurby) & police commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell).
The dead cop's calculating wife is first to find the incriminating suicide letter. She hides it in a safe place so that she can blackmail the mob for a monthly stipend, & begins living high on the hog.
Bannion (Glenn Ford), a good cop, gets his car wired with explosives, but the unintended victim is his wife (Jocelyn Brando). Thereafter he seethes with rage & energy, & is not even sure himself if he's on the road to justice, or revenge. As he closes in on the mobsters, he is increasingly harrassed to turn in his badge, but won't give the commissioner his gun, which was his personal weapon.
Vince Stone (Lee Marvin being deliciously evil) has hired a dirty-job killer, Larry Gordon (Adam Williams), first to kill Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) the suicided-cop's mistress who'd been talking to Bannion, next to wire Bannion's car. Bannion tracks down Larry, puts the squeeze on him, forces him to talk, which gets Larry killed by his fellow criminals within the hour.
When the corrupt police pretty much toss Bayon & his daughter (Linda Bennett) to the clutches of the mob, Bannion's brother-in-law (John Crawford) pulls together a group of war heros to guard the family. This little side-story is greatly underplayed, & the vets don't even get screen credits, but it's an moving bit of post-war storytelling.
Vince is an extremely violent mobster. His girlfriend Debbie Marsh (Gloria Grahame, stealing the film as her own) can generally manage Vince's temper so that she can have the rewards of being a gangster's moll & not be too often smacked around.
But when she seems to have befriended Bannion, Vince completely loses it, & throws boiling coffee on Debbie's face, scarring her for life, in one of the most shockingly brutal moments in any film noir. The police commissioner was witness to this event, having been gambling with Vince that night.
SPOILER ALERT. Duncan's self-serving widow Bertha (Jeannette Nolan) has arranged it so that if she dies, her late husband's letter will come to light bringing down mobsters & corrupt cops alike. In a shocking series of climactic scenes, scarred Debbie murders Bertha Duncan specifically so that the letter will surface, then hides in Vince's apartment until he returns home to avenge herself. Vince gets boiling water smack in his face, & Debbie gets to have a protracted death scene in Bannion's arms.
By her only two almost heroic though criminal acts, Debbie has not merely avenged herself against Vince for scarring her, but has assured an end to police corruption when mob boss Lagana is brought down. She's succeeded at what Bannion could not, even if at cost of her life in an almost samurai-style compensatory sacrifice. Gads I love that character. END SPOILERS.
The Big Heat is one of the most extreme of action-packed film noirs, coming down to a moment of truth for Bannion. The epilog is perhaps a mite too tidily upbeat considering what harm has occurred that can never be undone, but there is some satisfaction in seeing Higgens & Lagana indicted, & Bannion reinstated on the magically-no-longer-corrupt force. Apart from the ending, this is one hell of a grim tale.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl