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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

THE BIG HEAT (1953)

After a half decade of uneven work, Fritz Lang regained his form one last time on this classic film noir. Basically a police procedural, it loosens up the usual structure by forcing Glenn Ford to work outside the system as an ex-detective. And it may be Ford’s position as rogue cop that allows the film to go as far it does, with meticulous set pieces from Lang that still resonate with violent shocks. Ford, an honest cop in a town drowning in systemic graft, is given a personal reason to bring down the corruption, but he still must put a measure of trust in Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin’s amoral moll, if he wants to pull it off. As Mr Big, the smoothy pulling the strings, Alexander Scourby is no DR. MABUSE, Lang’s infamous über-villain from his UFA glory days. But with the focus on Ford’s avenging good guy, the film successfully drops Lang’s German-Expressionist-in-Exile mode for something closer to Hollywood norm. Not only in the rhythm and editing, but in iconic perfs from Ford, Grahame, Marvin . . . and a pot of boiling coffee.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: So, why wasn’t Lang able to repeat this success? His next film, again with Ford & Grahame, THE HUMAN BEAST/’54, is a pale redo of Jean Renoir’s LE BÊTE HUMAINE/’38. Literally so, as Columbia Pictures had started compressing their b&w grey scale. (Marty Scorsese opines that tv production standards had a lot to do with this, but the subject hasn’t been properly investigated.) Then came the WideScreen revolution & CinemaScope, a frame ratio Lang thought fit only for snakes. Even Patrick McGilligan, in his fine bio, FRITZ LANG: THE NATURE OF THE BEAST, has trouble figuring this out.

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