Fritz Lang’s The Beat Heat is such a perfect noir it beckons an immediate reviewing, just to reassure oneself that the brilliance of its plotting, dialogue, acting, and direction weren’t a mere mirage.
Adapted by Sydney Boehm (one of noir’s sharpest writers) from a serialized story by crime writer William P. McGivern (author of Rogue Cop and Odds Against Tomorrow), Heat is ostensibly a detective film that switches gears to a revenge film, but the chief reason the straightforward story is so compelling lies in the contrasts continually deepen its unlikely characters in an emotional ménage a trios.
PARTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD
Glenn Ford, looking older and tougher after his cocky screen persona in Gilda [M] (1946), is initially a good cop with a fully devoted hausfrau and life partner. Det. Bannion likes the way wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) is always there for emotional support after a day of shoveling human scum into jail cells, and acting as a buffer when he’s unable to connect with daughter Joyce. Dogged by a wonky case and the sudden death of a key witness who could’ve helped sever a corrupt alliance between a former bootlegger and upper level members of the city’s judiciary and police services, Bannion’s life – already interrupted by dinnertime phone calls to identify cadavers – is virtually destroyed when his wife is killed.
His new goal, after selling the family’s pretty white picket fence house, is to set up shop in a hotel room and strategize the perfect chess game to bring down kingpin Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), right-hand man Vince (Lee Marvin), and the legion of corrupt cops who simply follow orders without questioning their acute origins.
Once Bannion’s wife is gone, the film sets up the unlikely ménage between Bannion, Vince, and moll Debby (brilliant Gloria Grahame): the cop needs her help for information, but he finds himself attracted to her state of delusion, thinking he can free her from an addiction to Vince’s money which enables her to ‘shop six days a week and rest on Sundays.’
END OF SPOILERS
Vince’s cruelty is initially inferred, then glimpsed in a bar when he almost breaks the hand of a card shark moll (Carolyn Jones, fresh from House of Wax), but his pure mean streak is showcased in the film’s most vicious moment – spraying Debby’s face with a pot of boiling hot coffee – and sets him up for an inevitable fall, now that his unlikely confidant is armed with full knowledge of his crimes, and revenge.
With the exception of Bannion’s wife – too pure and too much of an ideal to survive in the film’s grim world – all the women in Heat are cleverly manipulative: Debby follows orders but makes derogatory gestures, and dolls out hysterical insults at Vince with virtual impunity, whereas Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), widow of a corrupt bureaucrat, is able to finagle a fat pension from Lagana through blackmail.
There’s also the almost ludicrously perfect Bannion marriage which oddly feels like a precursor to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987): there are striking similarities between Det. Bannion and Det. Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in terms of their married life, their adoration of an impossible to maintain familial bliss, and the mob’s violent threats against said bliss.
Boehm’s script is a marvel of construction because there’s absolutely no fat: every line refers to material that could easily have been a whole scene, yet additional backstory isn’t necessary, because by keeping scenes tight & lean, the pacing just clips along, adding information, mood, texture, and deeper psychological scars to the characters until the finale where justice is meted out not because of a moral obligation, but blatant self-interest.
Even from the opening scene, a death ignites a selfish act, and no character resists the urge to exploit a situation. It’s that mass of grey through which the characters walk which ensures major and bit parts are memorable, right down to the almost grotesque manager at a car wrecking yard, whose indifference to Bannion’s recent widower status is tempered by his own need to follow orders and preserve his own family’s security.
Perhaps what’s surprising about Lang’s direction is how well he could handle stories outside of an epic narrative when the focus was on latent, bubbling, or pressurized violence. The villains in the film aren’t all black; they’re merely opportunists with vestiges of morality after some implied but never detailed rotten past.
It’s a pity there’s no commentary track to expand on the script, fine details on the film’s themes, the filmmakers’ efforts to subvert the era’s strict censorship rules, and Columbia’s possible influence on the film’s pacing and editing, but even without prior knowledge of any of the film’s elements, Heat will impress any novice filmgoer.
From Columbia’s stance, Heat was just another studio picture, as evidenced by the casting. Ford, having established a compelling tough guy persona in a string of genre outings, was merely dropped into another project with high-level pedigree, including director Lang, and more interestingly co-star Scourby, whom Columbia had recently paired (again as a villain) in the patchwork noir Affair in Trinidad [M] (1952) with Rita Hayworth. (There’s also the sense Lagana’s stately home was repurposed from the mansion set used in Trinidad, as well as the casino in Gilda).
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a crisp transfer of the film with both a mono sound mix and a bonus isolated score track with music by Daniele Amfitheatrof, Arthur Morton, and Henry Vars. The included booklet contains a fine mini-essay by Julie Kirgo, who points out Ford’s gift in playing tormented men (of which the apex is probably Ransom!) and the sly connective dialogue, and strategically placed props that pepper the film. The booklet, graced with a striking cover shot, is punctuated by a reproduction of the original poster campaign which dramatizes a non-existent event and non-existent brunette moll in the film – a classic in bullshit studio publicity.
Boehm’s other scripts include Union Station (1950), Violent Saturday [M] (1955), Woman Obsessed [M] (1959) and the sci-fi classic When Worlds Collide (1951). Lang’s remaining crime classics include Human Desire (1954) with Grahame, While the City Sleeps (1956), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), and his final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).
Tidbit of trivia A: if the portrait of Lagana’s mother that graces his mansion looks a week bit familiar, the aged matriarch in question is apparently modeled after actress Celia Lovsky, best known as T’Pau in the Star Trek episode “amok Time” (1967).
Tidbit of trivia B: the basement bar which Bannion revisits at point has the background jukebox playing “Put the Blame on Mame” – a cute in-joke to the bawdy dance number that sends Ford’s thuggish character in Gilda into a rage.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan