NE PLUS ULTRA-VIOLENT: Two Noirs from 1953

Revenge is sweet! Just ask Liam Neeson as he plows down the mobster clan/spy organization/terrorist cell when his cousin’s great niece’s best friend’s neighbor is . . . TAKEN! But do you remember when revenge was not sweet? When it was more sweet and sour? Ask Antigone. Ask Hamlet. And, by all means, ask Fritz Lang.

In 1936, Lang made one of the truly great films about revenge called Fury. Spencer Tracy is at his best as a decent Joe (named Joe) who is nearly lynched by a small-town mob for a crime he didn’t commit. These crazies nearly burn him alive and kill his dog, and . . . it changes Joe. He becomes a grim figure out to destroy the mob that destroyed his life. It takes the love of a good woman (Silvia Sydney) to bring about a come-to-Jesus moment for Joe where he can call a halt to his plan for revenge, atone for his own misdeeds, and finally begin to heal. 

Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, Lang dabbled brilliantly in film noir with films like The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, and While the City Sleeps, but he didn’t return to the motif of revenge until 1953. The Big Heat deals even more explicitly with the consequences of revenge because its protagonist, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is a cop. If Fury ultimately packs a greater punch for me, it’s mostly because Ford is no Spencer Tracy. But then Fury really isn’t a film noir, and so we can leave behind any further comparisons . . . except to say that what concerns us here today is the treatment of violence, which is minimal, stylized, and mostly emotional in the 1936 film and physical to the point of sadism – on both the characters and the audience – in The Big Heat. That rise in violence would become a permanent part of noir throughout the 50’s, boiling over as the movement reached near extinction before being reincarnated in living color a few years later. 

Happy family man (Glenn Ford, with Jocelyn Brando) with a lot to learn

The Big Heat takes place in a mid-size American town where none of the systems work. The police and legal departments are rife with corruption, and the mob empire of Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is full of incompetent lackeys. Into this walks Detective Sergeant Bannion, and from the start he gets everything wrong. Investigating the suicide of a fellow cop, he offers sympathy to the widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), whose grieving is a mask for pure selfishness. He treats Lucy Chapman, the dead policeman’s mistress (Dorothy Green) like an opportunistic whore despite her willingness to lead the cop to the truth about Duncan’s death – and this leads to her being tortured and killed by Lagana’s stooges. 

When Lagana’s men call Bannion’s home and speak menacingly to his loving wife (Jocelyn Brando), he storms over to Lagana’s home during a party for the mobster’s daughter, threatens Lagana and roughs up his guard. This leads to a bomb being planted in Bannion’s car – but, of course, it is his wife Katie who turns the ignition and is killed. Now a widower with a little girl, Bannion vows to use the tools of his trade to bring down Lagana, but he is stymied by the corruption that puts key men, including the police commissioner, in the mobster’s pocket. Suspended from the force and with little recourse, Bannion places his daughter at his brother’s apartment and goes full commando. 

His actions, sadly, do not clear his head: he bursts into a bar teeming with bad guys (and ironically named The Retreat) and roughs up Vince Stone (a wonderfully brutal Lee Marvin) in front of the crowd. This prompts sympathy for Bannion from Vince’s girlfriend, party girl Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) and she offers to help the ex-cop, only to be rejected by Bannion and then burned and disfigured by Vince for her efforts. 

So far, Bannion has manifested poor judgment and inappropriate machismo, transforming himself from a happy family man in a lovely home to an angry loner in a crappy hotel room. Even when he accepts that Lucy Chapman was correct about everything and he confronts and roughs up Mrs. Duncan, it leads to nothing. Dave needs to return to the community of humankind in order to achieve, not vengeance, but justice. He finds this in Debby and in the brotherhood of war veterans who come to his brother’s aid to protect Dave’s young daughter. 

Debby (Gloria Grahame) and Vince (Lee Marvin) in happier times

Debby Marsh is one of the most interesting female characters in film noir, and Grahame is marvelous in the role. By rights, she ought to be the femme fatale – or at least another statistic of the crime world – and Bertha Duncan the wronged widow. But in this world of the mid-50’s, the roles are, not switched precisely, but redefined. (For a fine theory on how the film inverts the femme fatale trope, read Grant Tracey’s essay here.) Both these women assume a power not normally bestowed upon female characters in this film era: Bertha holds the information that gives her power over the mighty Lagana, and she uses it to buy furs and jewels. Debby, who spends the first third of the film admiring herself in various mirrors, wastes no time at all on self-pity when she is maimed. Instead, she becomes an avenging angel, and unlike Bannion, she does something with her thirst for vengeance. 

Debby confronts Bertha and kills her, something Bannion only wanted to do. First, however, she reminds the widow that despite their class differences they are more alike than one might think. (“We should use first names, Bertha. We’re sisters under the mink.”) Later, she gets her own revenge on Vince with a second strategically placed pot of boiling coffee: 

It’ll burn for a long time, Vince. It doesn’t look bad now. But in the morning your face will be like mine. You’ll walk through side streets and alleys so that people won’t stare at you. Oh, but you’re lucky. It won’t be for long. Bertha Duncan is dead. No more insurance for you and Lagana. The lid’s off the garbage can, and I did it!”

Debby accomplishes what Bannion, in his fevered state, cannot. Most important, she brings Bannion back to the land of the living. In their second encounter, she had asked him to tell her about his wife, and all he can manage is a police description – height, weight, appearance. Later, as she lays dying from a gunshot in the back, she repeats the question. This time, with all the hate drained out of him, Bannion can supply a true description of the woman he adored, remembering the details about her that he loved and will forever miss. 

Debby dies, Lagana’s empire crumbles, and Dave is restored to his job, his daughter, and his upright moral code. But the film ends with the call to respond to another senseless homicide, a hit-and-run, and one can only imagine how far it would take to push our hero over the edge again. Remember, Taken had several sequels . . . 

*     *     *     *     *

Pickup on South Street, made that same year by Samuel Fuller, opens with a doozy of a scene. We’re on a packed New York subway car, and two men are eyeing a sultry beauty who takes no notice of their attentions. Another man weaves through the crowd and stands next to the woman. Their eyes meet and something electric flashes between them. As they exchange who knows what sort of thoughts, she doesn’t notice his deft hand lifting the wallet from her purse. He slips it in his pocket and exits the train, but not without attracting the notice of the two men we met at the beginning. 

It turns out that the true story behind this scene is anything but what you thought it might be. Oh, sure, the pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is who he claims to be, but the girl is acting as a messenger for Communist spies, and the two men so fixed on her are Feds. But that’s the sort of thing Sam Fuller does, creating hybrids where he takes a smidge from one genre and weaves in a smattering from another to make wholly original works. And, boy, Pickup on South Street works on every level – as a film noir, an espionage thriller, a taut little romance, and a timely polemic against Communism. In fact, there’s a sort of moral here about how even the lowliest of men can redeem himself if only he’ll fight the Commies.

Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) meets his mark – and his match (Jean Peters)

The cast is uniformly terrific. Like Harry Fabian in Night and the City, Widmark plays another loser, but one with such becoming arrogance that you almost forgive his mercenary ways. Jean Peters (who looks a lot like my cousin Lynn!) plays Candy, the ex-girlfriend of a pathetic guys named Joey (Richard Kiley) who coaxes her into making a delivery of microfilm without letting her in on the fact that he’s part of a vicious Communist cell stealing American secrets. His own propensity for violence comes out late in the film, and Candy bears the brunt of it. Yes, Skip did conk the lady over the head when he caught her rifling through his dockside cabin, but it’s Joey who beats her up and shoots her in the back, only a day after he blew an old lady’s head off. This is the sort of violence caused the Production Code to deem the film “unacceptable.” (Actually, it was worse before the PC police ordered changes to the script!) But, after all, this is what the Commies did in those days, folks, right? That’s propaganda for you, but at least it’s all out in the open here, and not the subversive shenanigans of other films, like the admittedly mediocre Storm Warning (1951) and the truly classic On the Waterfront (1954). That part does not age well.

If I seem in any way snarky here, get this and get it good: I loved this movie. It’s taut and fast-paced and beautifully shot by Joseph McDonald (The Dark Corner, Panic in the Streets). The relationship between Widmark and Peters is complex and interesting and never gets in the way of the action stuff. Best of all, the film co-stars Thelma Ritter as Moe, a woman who makes her living as a stoolie and a fence in order to afford a better resting ground than Potter’s Field. She emerges as the film’s conscience and proves once and for all that there isn’t a movie existing that Ritter couldn’t make better with her presence. Where Skip and Candy waffle in their dealings with Communist agents, Moe is a straight shooter all the way, trying to help the younger people understand the stakes and facing off with her own killer in a beautifully underplayed call to patriotism:

Listen, Mister. When I come in here tonight, you seen an old clock runnin’ down. I’m tired. I’m through. Happens to everybody sometime. It’ll happen to you too, someday. With me it’s a little bit of everything. Back aches and headaches. I can’t sleep nights. It’s so hard to get up in the morning, and get dressed and walk the streets. Climb the stairs. I go right on doin’ it! Well, what am I gonna do, knock it? I have to go on makin’ a livin’ . . . so I can die. But even a fancy funeral ain’t worth waitin’ fer if I gotta do bus’ness with crumbs like you.

Pickup on South Street climaxes where it began – on the New York Subway – where Skip is redeemed, admittedly not so much by patriotic feelings but due to the loyalty of a beautiful woman and the loss of a mother figure. He brings down the spies for the Feds and rejoins his girl. The cynical police captain scoffs that Skip is still a loser and that within thirty days he will be in their custody forever. But with a Communist cell in the pokey and Candy now by his side saying, “Wanna bet?,” it’s a rare film noir with a happy ending. I know I’ll get complaints about that in the comment section, but I, for one, am glad of it!

3 thoughts on “NE PLUS ULTRA-VIOLENT: Two Noirs from 1953

  1. Couple of great movies. I do love FURY but it more rightly belongs to Lang’s treatment of mob mentality in the likes of METROPOLIS and M. Here the depiction of corruption has real weight and I still think the violence (even if Gloria Graham’s character does end up as a kind of Phantom of the Opera figure) is truly shocking. Ford’s sour and sour persona is quite hard to take but Lang uses it perfectly in my view. I love the sophisticated rawness of Sam Fuller, his work is so technically impressive and yet the naked tabloid-style emotion will always mark him out as a primitive. Thelma Ritter is so wonderful here and Fuller is clearly loving her work. Great double bill Brad!

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  2. Excellent remarks on both films. I watched Pickup yesterday and had not seen it in a few years. The Youtube copy Elliott pointed us to is very good and I watched it on my big TV and not on my PC monitor. I’m glad I did. There is some fine camera work that is more noticeable on a bigger screen.

    I really like The Big Heat. I showed it a few years ago in my class and it was a big surprise to many of the old folks who are in my classes. Only a few had seen it. Which is the case when you get past the most famous noir movies.

    Thelma Ritter is always good. Eddie Muller pointed out that she had six nominations for Best Supporting Actress, the most every by anyone. She is awesome as Moe and the death scene is riveting.

    John Curran

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    • Thanks for the comment, fellow classmate John (and not Dr. Curran from Great Britain.) I read that Ritter’s record has been surpassed, but the real crime is that she never won. See you in class tonight!

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