The Big Heat: A Film Noir Classic




Directed by Fritz Lang

Columbia Pictures, 90 minutes, Not-rated.





The Big Heat is widely regarded as a film noir classic. In my mind, at 90 minutes it’s a bit cramped, but there’s no denying the skillful touch of director Fritz Lang (1890-1970). He was dubbed “Master of Darkness” for both his chosen subject matter and his preference for black in the age of black and white movies. The Big Heat is also remarkable when you think that the then 63-year-old Lang made this film nearly 30 years after he directed Metropolis, which might be the best dystopian film ever made.


The Big Heat is cut from different cloth, shrouds. Homicide Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the alleged suicide of fellow homicide officer Tom Duncan whose wife Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) says was in poor health. Several things don’t add up. Why is everyone in such a hurry to close the book on Duncan? Why does Tom’s mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) insist that Tom was perfectly healthy? What kind of guy about to off himself leaves a note for the district attorney rather than friends and family? Why can’t Dave see the contents of the note?


In a good film noir, questions like these portend murder. Bannion is suspicious and how can he not be when Chapman joins Duncan in the Great Beyond–with cigarette burns on her body? To Bannion’s nose everything smells like the work of mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). Yet superiors order him to close the book on the case. Of course, he won’t; even when the case is moved out of his jurisdiction. When Bannion accuses higher ups of ignoring evidence and corruption, he is suspended and his badge is revoked. As if that’s going to stop him after a car bomb kills his wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando).


The free-lancing Bannion is certain he’s on the right track when he’s in a bar and observes Lagana’s chief punk Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) extinguish a cigar on a woman’s arm. Bannion challenges him and his lowlife buddies. That catches the attention of Stone’s girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), whom we infer has herself been on the wrong end of Vince’s anger. But which side is she on? The Big Heat has more femmes fatales than an NBA locker room has castoff sneakers. Moreover, aside from Bannion and his war buddies, there aren’t many men who can be trusted either. Threats to Bannion’s daughter are the icing on an explosive cake.


The term gritty is apropos for a film that could only make an undertaker happy. If Bannion is right, he truly is a man on his own. In his mind, everyone from the police commissioner on down is beholden to the mob. The drama hinges on Dave’s ability to stay alive and, he thinks, the content of Duncan’s note.


Glenn Ford is terrific as a man metaphorically dancing on the edge of the razor in his bare feet. He’s angry, but also scared. As well he should be. Lee Marvin is chilling as the amoral Vince Stone and, for once, the women in the film get to play major parts. Gloria Grahame shines in a role that requires her to walk a tightrope with no safety net to catch her. You can rest assured also that any film directed by Fritz Lang and cinematographer Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz) will be stylish and moody.


The only thing that mars the film is that it should have been longer. Sydney Boehm’s screenplay based on a William McGivern novel requires viewers to juggle a few too many characters. Though McGivern’s work was brief (200 pages), Boehm’s truncated script strips away depth, not enough to rob characters of their personalities, but enough to provide temporary confusion over their respective relationships.


As for Dave Bannion, is there any hope if the establishment is rotten to the core? Has he allowed his grief to make him paranoid? Losing a friend, a wife, a few witnesses, and worrying about a kidnap plot on your daughter could make you so. Watch and find out who is left standing.


Rob Weir






Oddball Comedies


The film genre known as screwball comedy was a sort of predecessor to situation comedy. In this piece–a follow-up to my review of Seducing Dr. Lewis–I offer suggestions for probing “oddball comedy.”


Oddball comedies are the antithesis of formulaic mass market movies. They can be sweet and uplifting, but they trade in absurdity, improbability, irony, satire, and surrealism. They are a blend of the Apollonian (intellectual) and the Dionysian (sensual, untethered from the commonplace, inverted perspectives).


Here is a smattering of oddball comedies to try, listed in alphabetical order:


The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Through the Window and Disappeared (2013): Phew, that’s a mouthful but it sets up the entire movie. When Allan’s cat dies, he’s shuffled off to the old folks home but Allan wants no part of it and goes AWOL. Elephants in Sweden? Why not? Not much goes right–for the bad guys! A caper film the likes of which you’ve seldom seen.


Amélie (2001): There are actually people who don’t like this film and all I can say is get over yourselves. This tasty morsel directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet is worth watching for its first five minutes alone. Add Audrey Tatou oozing coquettish cuteness, an unconventional love story, and absurdity on Montmartre and it’s on my all-time favorite films list.


The Big Lebowski (1998): “That rug really pulled the room together,” says Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski to the thugs who just peed on his carpet. I’ll watch anything from Joel and Ethan Coen, but what a cast of crazy and crazed characters: John Goodman as a bowler who won’t roll on Shabbat, Steve Buscemi as a clueless fall guy, John Turturro setting back gay rights by a decade, Julianne Moore au naturel, and inept baddies and all one can say is, “The Dude abides.”


Blazing Saddles (1974): This Mel Brooks classic is both hated and beloved. Those who don’t like it say it’s broad and crude; its defenders (such as I) applaud its dark lampoon of westerns, its silly songs, and its anarchic qualities. Some parts might offend the terminally PC, but Brooks wanted you to see the ridiculousness of ethnic stereotyping.


Brazil (1985): Can dystopia be funny? In the hands of Terry Gilliam, the cartoonist for Monty Python, nothing is sacred. Some have called Brazil a colossal mess; others a send-up of 1984. Put me in the second category. It’s amazing how funny ductworks can be. Ditto consumerism gone mad. For the record, it has zilch to do with its namesake country.


The Castle (1997): “What do you call this?” asks Darryl Kerrigan. “Chicken,” replies his wife, Sal. “Ahh, but it’s what you’ve done with it,” Darryl replies. He’s a simple man whose "castle” lies at the end of an airport runway and he doesn’t want to part with it. Take every bit of logic, turn it upside down, and you’re still short of the hysterics embedded in this Australian comedy. How about lines like, “Dad’s even more proud of him now than when he was in jail!” You’ll be singing, “We’re going to Bonny Doon” when this one ends. This might be my favorite offbeat film.


Comfort and Joy (1984): Pathos and absurdity mix in this Bill Forsyth film set in Glasgow. Can a break up film be a feel-good Christmas movie? Aye, lads and lassies. Bill Paterson is a DJ trying to recover his mojo. He proves what dribble AM radio can be. Queue Mr. Bunny and an ice cream war.


Delicatessen (1991): You have to have an abiding love for the offbeat to watch a comedy about cannibalism. This post-apocalyptic French film directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet is practically a Gallic Sweeney Todd. Believe it or not, it’s preposterous and wacky, its subject matter notwithstanding. Hey, a guy’s gotta eat.



Duck Soup (1933): All Marx Brothers films are blueprints for absurdist comedy, though Duck Soup is my favorite. If you think about it, puffed-up leaders, militarism, and war are absurd to their very core. The battlefield costume changes alone are worth the price of admission. Ditto Harpo walking through an active battle zone with a “Help Wanted” sign.


Eagle vs Shark (2007): This was Taika Waititi’s first film. It’s uneven, but who mixes cosplay, geeks, a singer who fails to connect, and fast food with Claymation interludes? Love and sex in the Land of the Weird.


Fargo (1996): “Ahh, jeez Marge, you gotta have your breakfast.” Forget the TV show; this Coen Brothers black comedy makes a wood chipper murder victim seem funny–in a twisted way. Anything with Frances McDormand, the Queen of Droll, is worth watching.


A Fish Called Wanda (1988): Stars John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. It’s obstensibly a double-cross heist film with Monty Python qualities. It features Cleese as a bumbling Lothario. That alone is funny!


Hunt for the Wilder People (2016): This film from New Zealand director Taika Waititi is a comedy-drama shot through with absurdism. Ricky, a foster child, and Hector, a cranky survivalist, hightail it through the New Zealand bush with child services in pursuit. You meet a lot of wacko people in the middle of the wilderness. This one is funny, but also poignant and sad in places. It’s unorthodox throughout.


The Jerk (1979): “Waiter, take this away and bring us some new wine.” This Steve Martin vehicle is a screamfest of looniness from start to finish. Carl Reiner directed this tale of love among the reality challenged, a dog named Shithead, and an invention gone wrong.


The Lobster (1995): This pan-European surrealist black comedy takes us to a future society in which unmarried people get 45 days to tie the knot or they are turned into animals. And you thought the dating scene was fraught with trauma! It might sound stupid, but it won the Jury Prize at Cannes, sports an all-star cast, and how-did-they-come-up-with-that turns.


Local Hero (1983): This film established Bill Forsyth’s reputation for showing Scotland as both charming and strange. Offshore oil sends a Yank from Houston to a remote Highlands village to forge a business deal. Mythic elements and a lilting brogue add to city slicker versus country bumpkin play acting.


Malcolm (1986): There’s nothing like a flaky inventor to stir things up, especially one with a childlike imagination who’s pretty far along the spectrum and whose love of trams leads to law-breaking. This unusual Australian comedy also advanced the career of the Penguin Café Orchestra.   


Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): Another Terry Gilliam directorial effort that turns King Arthur legends on their collective heads. If you’ve never seen it, watch zis film or I will have to taunt you again. Coconut shell horses, Castle Anthrax, a Trojan Rabbit, the Holy Grenade of Antioch, and the Knights Who Say “Ni” are among the things you’ll encounter.


O, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): Another Coen brothers’ film, this one starring George Clooney. Some viewers didn’t get its humor, but it makes a lot sense­–well nonsense–if you brush up on your Homer and know that it’s mostly a parody of The Odyssey set during the Great Depression. Be “the one the capacity for abstract thought” and enjoy this film. Wonderful soundtrack as well.


The Adventure of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): It’s as if the Aussies have a near stranglehold on oddball comedy. How about a drag queen road trip comedy set in the Outback? It sure is an antidote to Mad Max.




Rushmore (1998): Wes Anderson often drives me to distraction because most of his films are half brilliant and half of a lazy college sophomore’s term paper. Rushmore is his most complete venture into eccentricity. Jason Schwartzman is a 15-year-old kid who’s part huckster, part genius, and part spawn of Satan. This film also rebooted Bill Murray’s career as a laconic character that he can’t be bothered with what makes sense.


Rob Weir




Seducing Dr. Lewis is for Lovers of the Absurd!




Directed by Jean-François Pouliet

Wellspring Media, 108 minutes, unrated (language, adult situations)

In French with English subtitles





Movies like Seducing Dr. Lewis remind us of why independent cinema beats the pants off of mainstream movies. This small and exceedingly quirky comedy won an audience award at Sundance in 2004, was cited for excellence at Cannes, and won six Genie awards (the Canadian Oscars).  So, naturally, it was remade in English (2013) and set in Newfoundland rather than Québec, and France made another version two years later. Don’t be tempted; the original is all you need. 


This film couldn’t be more appropriate for a blog titled off-center views; it positively crackles and cackles with offbeat whimsy. The village of Ste-Marie-la-Mauderne is a village located on an island miles into in the Bay of St. Lawrence and accessible only by boat.* The steep decline of fishing has left Ste-Marie’s 120 residents in a bad way. Each week the men line up to collect their welfare checks at the bank managed by the nebbish Henri Giroux (Benoît Brière). Because it’s Canada, they are in no danger of starving, but everyone would rather work, both for their self-esteem and out of boredom. A souped-up and funny exchange between Giroux and de facto village leader Germain Lesage (Raymond Bouchard) in which he produces a permission note to collect the check for a long-dead resident alerts us that the film’s humor is coming at you every way except straight-on.


When Ste-Marie residents hear of plans for a plastics factory, they begin to lobby for it in ways that will put you in mind of shenanigans of the Scottish film Local Hero. Several problems. First, Ste-Marie is 80 residents shy of the firm’s population cutoff; second, a resident doctor is needed to sign off on the contract and care for the line workers. Third, the plastics firm point man wants a $50,000 bribe. A little in-one-door-out-another farce and sleight of hand swells the population, but recruiting a doctor willing to relocate in the middle of nowhere is another matter. Not even the bend-the-truth advertisements of Germain and his laconic best friends Rolland and Simone Lesage can make that happen. Nor is it easy for an island filled with welfare recipients to find $50,000.   


Meanwhile, in Montreal, Dr. Christopher Lewis (David Boutin) is pulled over for speeding in Montreal by a cop who was once the mayor of Ste-Marie-la-Mouderne. When Lewis reaches into his glove box for his registration, a packet of cocaine falls into plain view, and Lewis is up the St. Lawrence without a paddle. Luckily, the cop is willing to ignore the coke if Lewis agrees to spend a month on the island to minister to Ste-Marie’s long-ignored health needs. (The fact that his specialty is plastic surgery is irrelevant!)


If you suspect city slicker versus islander folksy country wisdom jokes, you’re on the right track, but think in terms more surreal than homespun. Germain, his wife Hélène (Rita Lafontaine), the Lesages, and the entire village conspire to convince Dr. Lewis to sign aboard for a three-year stint. All manner of weird enticements appear: faux love of cricket by hockey-loving residents who wouldn’t know bowls from the Dead Sea Scrolls; a lucky money-dispensing gnome; and faked interest in fusion jazz. Locals also tap Lewis’ landline phone to determine his other interests and let it be said that they misunderstand at a greater degree than they comprehend. About the only real attraction for Lewis is Ste-Marie’s attractive-but-aloof postmistress Éve (Lucie Laurier).


Will Lewis stay? Will the factory be built? where will the islanders find fifty grand? Will Germain. et. al. level with Lewis? Will Henri be replaced by an ATM? Those are the wrong questions and the answers scarcely matter. Watch this film with an eye toward wallowing in absurdity. You just might receive a heartwarming bonus or two.


Rob Weir


* Ste-Marie is actually Harrington Harbour in northeast Québec and is located on a peninsula, not out to sea.