Thursday, July 7, 2011

Everything looks better in black-and-white

Page 173 of 101 Greatest Films of Mystery and Suspense is the entry on one of the best Film Noirs of the 1950s.

The Big Heat (1953) begins with a dirty cop committing suicide and leaving behind a confession that would send the local mob boss (and the dishonest police commissioner) to the slammer.

But the dead cop’s wife knows a good thing when she sees it. She hides the confession and begins to blackmail the mob boss.

Events cascade out from there and soon lead to the murder of a clip joint girl that the dead cop had been seeing. The cop investigating all this is Dave Bannion—effectively played by Glen Ford as a tough guy who will not compromise his principles, even when ordered to do so by his superiors.

Bannion’s principles, though, soon lead to his wife’s death in a botched attempt to kill him. Suspended from the force, Bannion continues to investigate on his own.

Like many Film Noirs, this one is filled with interesting supporting characters. One of the most notable ones here are Vince Stone, the mob boss’s chief enforcer. He’s played by Lee Marvin—who was better at being loathsome than just about any other character actor in film history. In fact, as cool as Marvin could be playing the lead in films like The Dirty Dozen, I’d have to say he was at his best playing bad guys.

He’s terrific in this film. Stone has a violent temper but is ultimately gutless—something brought out in a very tense scene where he and Bannion confront each other for the first time. Marvin gives this despicable man a veneer of believability that makes him all the more loathsome. If you watch the film, pay attention to his performance—there’s a lot of subtlety in how he reads the lines or the gestures he makes. Marvin could play over-the-top villains with style (as he did in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence), but he could also tone it down when the movie required it.

Gloria Grahame gives a remarkably empathetic performance as Stone’s girl, Debbie Marsh. She takes a liking to Bannion, which results in Stone throwing… Well, that part is better left as a surprise.

It’s Debbie who elects to take a particular course of action near the end of the film that brings everything to a head.

And, boy, does this film look great. Directed by Fritz Lang, it uses black-and-white photography to set the mood, tell the story effectively and simply look really cool.

This movie is one of many that could be used to prove that it’s a tragedy that 70% to 80% of films aren’t still made in black-and-white. Heck, 70% to 80% of real life would look better in black-and-white.  I’m pretty sure that Film Noir would not have been half as successful or memorable if it had come along after color photography became the usual thing in Hollywood.

Next week, we’ll end our experiment with picking random entries from various reference works when we take a look inside The Encyclopedia of Monsters.

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