Home is Where the Heat Is: Fritz Lang's The Big Heat
Roy Armes, in his book Film and Reality, has suggested that part of the appeal of the Western is its combination of familiar landscape and familiar story, and an ever-changing path to reach that common conclusion. With film noir, I would say there is a similar formula, but put the emphasis on an unfamiliar landscape: the path is never so interesting as when atmosphere invades and corrupts it. For example: the winter-wonderland On Deadly Ground. It is the tried-and-true story of the cop who is sick of criminals and falls for the sister of a murderer. Solving the case also means solving the mystery of his dissatisfaction: he needs love, and finds it in the sister…but in the middle of the woods? And during winter? Somehow, Nicholas Ray makes it work.
Such is the case with Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. It’s not a snow-day cop thriller, but rather a domesticated cop thriller. The lack of harsh shadows, dark alleys and prison symbolism seems mysteriously lacking, until one realizes that Lang has imposed all of the moral decay of film noir to the family home, much like Hitchcock did in Shadow of a Doubt. Except where Hitchcock used shadows to project prison-like bars onto his protagonists, Lang throws in a doll – and I’m not using noir lingo, either.
The story is basic: a cop becomes the target of highly influential crooks that run the local politics, as well as the police. But as the film progresses, the street-drama leaves the streets and invades the home. An innocent wife is mistakenly killed. To counter this, her brother and his buddies take up guns and follow the basic creed of “guilty until proven innocent.” It is exactly this moral divergence that fascinates Lang. As we feel ourselves becoming more vulnerable, what right do we have to strike back? Where are the boundaries between aggressive and defensive? Lang also poses the question as to whether this vulnerability is paranoia, or self-inflicted. Classic Lang that permeates the entirety of his output, from Dr. Mabuse to Fury to While the City Sleeps; he is very much a director whose visual style reflects his personal concerns.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.