The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

The Big Heat (1953) Classic Movie Review 99

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.


Welcome to today’s show, The Big Heat (1953) is a classic film noir directed by Fritz Lang and starring Glenn Ford as a good cop and Gloria Grahame as a b-girl.


Glenn Ford plays the lead role of honest Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion. Ford was first covered in Episode 35 – Blackboard Jungle (1955)

The lovely Gloria Grahame played Debby Marsh. Grahame was talked about in Episode 53 – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Jocelyn Brando played the role of Katie Bannion. This older sister of Marlon Brandon was born in 1919. Jocelyn grew up in Illinois and was plagued by her two alcoholic parents. She started working in theater in Omaha and debuted on Broadway at the age of 22.

Her first film role was in the China Adventure (1953). Her best-known film role is The Big Heat (1953). Jocelyn worked with her famous brother in The Ugly American (1963) and The Chase (1966).

Jocelyn was more successful on television. Her last film role was Mommie Dearest (1981). She died at the age of 86 in 2005.

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Lee Marvin played psychotic gangster Vince Stone. Marvin was first covered in Episode 66 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Jeanette Nolan played Bertha Duncan, the wife of Det. Duncan. Nolan was covered in Episode 66 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Willis Bouchey played the role of Lt. Ted Wilks, a cop that was a little better than he seemed. Bouchey was covered in Episode 37 – The Violent Men (1955).

Carolyn Jones played the role of Doris. Jones was born in Texas in 1930. She was accepted into the Pasadena Playhouse in 1947. Graduating in 1950, she began work in theater. She signed a 6-month contract with Paramount and was in The Turning Point (1952) but they dropped her contract. Jones continued to work on television and stage. She made a big splash with her role in House of Wax (1953). She had another important role in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). She wrote scripts and continued to make movies lies The Bachelor Party (1957) and King Creole (1958) with Elvis Presley. She was excellent in Career (1959).

Jones is best known for her television role of Morticia Addams in “The Addams Family” 1964-1966. The outfit that she wore was later used by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and Vampira. “The Addams Family” when head-to-head with “The Munsters” 1964-1966 and “Bewitched” (1964-1972. However, the network still canceled the successful show.

After the show was canceled it was seven years before she returned to Hollywood. She was successful on television for a time. Sadly, she died in 1983 from cancer.


The movie begins with a man killing himself. On his desk is a letter to the District Attorney and the dead man’s police badge. The man is Tom Duncan, a policeman in charge of records. His wife Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan) casually comes down the stairs. She takes the letter, opens and reads it, and then calls criminal boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). At the end of the call, Lagana tells Bertha to call the police. Lagana then calls one of his henchmen Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). The phone is answered by Stone’s girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Stone tells Lagana that he will take care of a request.

Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) goes to the Duncan home and confirms that it was a suicide. Bannion interviews Ms. Duncan. She says her husband was clean and may have taken his life because his health was failing but he never saw a doctor.

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Bannion’s home life is idealistic. His wife Katie Bannion (Jocelyn Brando) loves her life and the pair has a young daughter. Bannion gets a call to go meet Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) the alleged mistress of the dead cop. Lucy tells Bannion that her and Mr. Duncan were having an affair and that he was planning on leaving his wife. She also lets out that he owned a summer place. Bannion does not believe the B-girl and she says she will go to the papers.

Bannion is interested enough that he goes back and sees Ms. Duncan again. Duncan sticks with her story and says her husband has had multiple affairs. She blows up when Bannion asks about how they bought the lake house.

Later Bannion gets a report of murder matching Lucy Chapman. He goes to the morgue and sees that Lucy has been burned all over with cigarettes and tossed out of a car to her death. Bannion is called into the office of Lieutenant Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey). Wilks says he is getting pressure from above for Bannion to leave the widow alone.

Bannion goes back to the bar where he met Lucy Chapman and starts investigating the murder even though he does not have jurisdiction. The bartender just shines him on but as soon as Bannion leaves he calls someone on the phone. Bannion doubles back and tries to find out who he called. No luck and the bartender knows he has been warned off already by his superiors.

When Bannion returns to his happy home, his starts getting threatening calls. The call says some big people are getting annoyed. In a rage, Bannion heads over to the mansion of criminal boss Mike Lagana. He is throwing a party and cops are assigned to guard the place around the clock. Lagana is pulling all of the criminal strings in town. Lagana thanks he is there for a police shakedown. He talks about the Lucy Chapman murder and gets really mad that Bannion brought the talk of murder into his house. Bannion beats the hound out of the goon sent to throw him out.

In the morning, Wilks starts chewing on Bannion again. Back at home Bannion is complaining to his wife and calls Wilks a “leaning tower of jelly.” Katie Bannion goes to the car and when she cranks it, the car explodes, killing her.

The commissioner (Howard Wendell) and Wilks call Bannion in after the funeral. His daughter is sent to stay with her mother’s family. The commissioner says the explosion was revenge for someone he previously convicted. They are all afraid to go after Lagana. After Bannion says that the commissioner works for Lagana, he is fired. He keeps his gun.

When Bannion is moving out of his house, Det. Burke (Robert Burton) comes by and says Wilks has asked him to help. Bannion basically spits in his face.

Back at Stone’s apartment, Debby is happily mixing drinks. Stone comes home and has his toadie Larry (Adam Williams). Shortly after, Lagana shows up. Debby starts mocking Lagana calling him the ringmaster. Lagana warns Vince about Debby and her drinking. Vince says she doesn’t matter to him. Lagana chews out Larry for dumping Lucy Chapman’s body in public and killing the wrong person in the car explosion. Lagana says Ms. Duncan has raised her hush price to $500 a week.

Bannion goes to a junkyard looking for a bomb maker named Slim. However, Slim is dead and the junkman (Dan Seymour) is no help. After Bannion leaves, the bookkeeper (Edith Evanson) comes out and tells him she says the man that came to see Slim, a man named Larry called, and he could be contacted at the bar where Lucy Chapman had worked, The Retreat.

Bannion asks his brother-in-law to call The Retreat at 9 pm asking for Larry. Bannion will be there so he can see who responds. In the bar, Stone is playing dice with Doris (Carolyn Jones) while Debby drinks nearby. Stone starts getting mad because Doris is picking up the dice too fast. When she does it again, Stone burns her hand with a cigar. Stone pays Doris off and Bannion throws him out of the bar. Debby tries to buy Bannion a drink and he says he would chock on it. She follows him out not being able to stand the rejection. The pair gets in a cab to go to Bannion’s hotel. Larry is outside in a car and follows them. Bannion tries to interrogate Debby as she tries to seduce him. She does mention that she got her legs waxed. Who knew that had that back then? Bannion send her away in a taxi.

When Debby gets back to Stone’s apartment he is playing cards with Larry, the commissioner, and some other guys. Stone quizzes her on her story and then accuses her of playing footsie with Bannion. I thought of Roger Rabbit. Anyway, Stone pours scalding coffee on one side of her face and neck. Stone makes the commissioner take her to the hospital because he is on the payroll. When Stone reports to Lagana, he orders her murdered.

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

After Debby gets out of the hospital she goes to Bannion’s hotel. Her face bandage is a pre-cursor to the modern Phantom of the Opera mask. Bannion gets her a room on his floor. Debby starts telling everything that has gone on including the political corruption. She mentions Larry and Bannion jumps on the name connecting it with the bombing. Debby realizes that he doesn’t care about her, only his own wife’s murderer. She continues and tells where Larry lives.

Bannion gets the bookkeeper to ring Larry’s door and then say she had the wrong location. After the door is closed she lets Bannion know that it is the man that talked to the bomber, Slim. Bannion rings the door and Larry opens it thinking it is the old lady. He is met with a solid punch from Bannion. Bannion, who is no longer a cop, coughs a confession out of Larry. Larry tells that Stone ordered Lucy’s murder, Mr. Duncan was on the take, and Ms. Ducan is now on the payroll.

Back at Lagana’s house, Stone tells him that he killed Larry as he tried to escape to the airport. Stone also says the Mr. Duncan was trying to get out and they forced him to stay in the racket. His only way out was to kill himself. Lagana orders Stone to kidnap Bannion’s daughter. He says he will have the police protection pulled off. About this time Ms. Duncan calls Lagana saying that Bannion is at her door. Bannion accuses her and her dead husband of being on the take. Ms. Ducan has the evidence set to come out if she dies. Bannion gets ready to kill her but the police car that Lagana called shows up.

Bannion goes back to the hotel and tells Debby the set-up. She asks about his wife and he only gives her a cold police description. Debby tells him that if he killed Ms. Duncan, he would be no better than Stone. Bannion gets a call from his sister-in-law that the police detail has been pulled. He leaves Debby a gun and heads over. As he climbs the stairs, a man with a gun (John Doucette) pulls a gun on him. At the top of the landing they get into a fight and Bannion’s brother-in-law comes out. He has brought in his old Army buddies and they are defending the house and girl. After meeting the guys, Bannion is satisfied they can protect his daughter. Of course, they can, they are Army.

Outside of the house, Det. Burke and Lt. Wilks show up to help. It takes a bit, but they convince Bannion they are ready to take down the mob. They warn him not to go back and try and kill Ms. Duncan.

Debby goes to Ms. Duncan’s house and they both are wearing furs. Debby tells her that they are sisters under the fur coats before she murders her with Bannion’s gun. Bannion has staked out Stone’s penthouse. When Stone goes upstairs, Debby throws scalding coffee on his face. She shows him her scarred face and tells him that Ms. Duncan is dead and that Stone and Lagana are heading for a fall. Stone shoots Debby in the back. Bannion busts in and has a living room/balcony gun fight. Bannion phones for help. When Stone runs out of bullets, Bannion drags him down. He thinks about killing him but is too good a cop. Det. Burke and Lt. Wilks show up and take Bannion’s gun think he killed Ms. Duncan. They arrest Stone but it is too late to save Debby. As Debby dies Bannion tells her how much she was like his wife.

The newspaper shows that Lagana and the commissioner have been arrested. Bannion returns to his police work at the Homicide desk.

World-Famous Short Summary – Straight cop and fancy b-girl almost find love.

If you enjoyed this week’s show, please tell your friends and if you really want to help drop over to iTunes to give me a review. If you want to comment, recommend a movie, or just say hi, follow the links in the show notes to my site.

Beware the moors

The Big Heat (1953)


(Visited 153 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.