Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Big Heat (1953)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Big Heat (1953)

In Fritz Lang's bleak, dark, very brutal and violent film noir crime classic and expressionistic melodrama-gangster film - it explored the seamy underworld of American organized crime. The film's title referred to the "heat" of the police enforcement crack-down on lawlessness and illegal activities. Other minor references were to the hot-coffee that prominently appeared in a few scenes, the car-bombing, and the "hot-headed" cop who was pushed to his limits.

It was a potent story laced with revenge, murder, and hate. The message of the film was that only when courageous, moral individuals stood together was it possible to save the society (and home and family life) from being overtaken by sinister forces of evil. Thankfully, most but not all of the film's most violent moments occurred off-screen and were bloodless.

Lang's uncompromising and grim story told about one man - an iron-willed, driven, dedicated, honest, incorruptible homicide detective (Glenn Ford) within a crooked and perverted society that was corrupt at all levels (e.g., the mob, the commissioner, the police, and everyday citizens), who found out the enormous price that he had to pay to find justice. The crusading, vigilante rogue cop/hero was even forced to erode his idealistic, law-abiding principles when he resorted to the unlawful tactics of the hoodlums.

One of the film's taglines on a poster revealed the compulsive and personal drive of the average Joe protagonist, the rogue detective sergeant, to vengefully retaliate against the forces of corruption: "Somebody's Going to Pay...because he forgot to kill me..."; the crusading cop uncovered a troubling case after the suicide of a fellow crooked cop, who along with other flunkies "on the take" in the police force (including the Police Commissioner) were secretly in cahoots with the local organized crime mobster. The cop's suicide was motivated by his guilt-ridden conscience about his involvement with the mob.

The screenplay by former crime reporter Sidney Boehm and based on the serialized story published in early 1953 in the Saturday Evening Post and the hard-hitting, brutal 1953 novel by William P. McGivern. Surprisingly, the film lacked Academy Award nominations. The film's heroine portrayed by actress Gloria Grahame had won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award a year earlier for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). The film also provided an early breakthrough role for Lee Marvin.

  • the film opened with the apparent suicide of veteran 41 year-old Kenport Police Dept. cop Tom Duncan at his desk at 3:00 am in the morning. His evil, conniving and greedy widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) saw his multiple pages of handwritten case notes (with damning evidence) that were to be mailed in an envelope addressed to the local DA in the Hall of Justice, took them, and soon after secured them in her bank safe-deposit box.

Opening Image: Revolver, Used for Suicide

Opening Scene: Suicidal Death of Tom Duncan

Widowed Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan)

Tom Duncan's Incriminating Letter to the DA
  • Bertha immediately phoned big-time, ruthless, meglomaniacal kingpin and local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), to tip him off - presumably because she planned to use the notes to extort his criminal gang for lucrative payoffs and to seek protection via blackmail; Lagana in turn called on his brutal, sadistic, reflexive, cold-blooded henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who was in the company of his vainly narcissistic, brassy, free-spirited femme fatale girlfriend/moll Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) in tow in a sado-masochistic, abusive relationship
  • Police Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), an iron-willed, driven, and unrestrained honest homicide cop, was called upon to investigate his colleague's suicide; at the Duncan home, he spoke to newly-widowed Bertha (in her upstairs bedroom) who claimed that Tom had been ill with a strange health problem and made excuses to not visit a doctor

Sgt. Bannion Questioning Duncan's Evasive Widow Bertha

Sgt. Bannion Questioning Duncan's Barfly Mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) at The Retreat

Bertha Duncan With Bannion Refuting All of Lucy's Claims About Her Husband
  • Bannion also questioned Duncan's barfly B-girl mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) at The Retreat's bar, who completely refuted Bertha's version of facts about Tom and his health; Lucy was expecting to marry the very healthy officer after Bertha had recently consented to a divorce; Lucy was contemptuous of Bertha, and called her a "leech" and a liar, and also made a comparison: "The only difference between me and Bertha Duncan is that I work at being a B-Girl. And she has a wedding ring and a marriage certificate"; however, Bannion was skeptical of her account and prejudiced against the no-good partygirl
  • however, his suspicions about both women were further aroused after follow-up questioning of the widow Bertha Duncan, who denounced Lucy as a liar - denying that that she had agreed to a divorce, and also contradicting Lucy's assertion that Tom didn't have a terminal illness; she also became contemptuous after he asked about how the Duncans could afford their expensive second summer home in Lakeside on a cop's normal salary (was it due to a payoff?)
  • shortly afterwards, Lucy was found thrown from a moving car on the parkway (off-screen) - she had been brutally beaten and tortured (with signature cigarette burns) and murdered (by strangulation). The county medical examiner dismissed it as a possible "sex crime" committed by a psychopath. Bannion became suspicious when other compromised individuals in the police department criticized his "bad judgment" and wanted him to quit asking any more questions about Duncan's sudden suicide or Chapman's murder; he was reprimanded by his Department Head Lt. Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) who had been scolded by the head Police Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell) and told to get off the case
  • nonetheless, Bannion was motivated to pursue the forbidden investigation and mystery even further; his questioning of The Retreat's bartender Tierney (Peter Whitney) led nowhere - as he kept stating how Lucy and other barflys weren't worth caring about; after leaving the bar area, Bannion caught the bartender lying after making a suspicious phone call to the ruthless head crime boss Lagana; he became enraged that the mobster and his followers were also making obscene phone calls to his house (from a contract killer named Larry Gordon (Adam Williams), hired by Laguna's henchman Vince), threatening him and his home life: "It's just another part of the scheme to make me crawl back in my shell"
  • Sgt. Bannion felt compelled to question Lagana about Lucy Chapman's "old-fashioned" murder, and aggravated the kingpin by personally visiting his home during a night-time social party for his teenaged daughter; at first, Lagana ushered Bannion into his study-office where he revealed his "mother complex" by explaining his respect for his deceased mother, whose portrait was hung above the fireplace
Bannion's Personal Confrontation With Lagana At His Mansion
  • Lagana refused to speak about Bannion's questions concerning Lucy Chapman's recent murder - and stated: ("This is my home. And I don't like dirt tracked into it"); Bannion sarcastically lambasted the corrupt crime boss' dwelling: "No place for a stinking cop. It's only a place for a hoodlum who built this house out of twenty years of corruption and murder....You couldn't plant enough flowers around here to kill the smell"; Bannion also didn't like intimidating, obscene phone calls that his wife had answered in his home, and before leaving, slugged Lagana's attendant George Rose when he was manhandled
  • the next day, Bannion was again warned by Lt. Wilks to stop pestering Lagana: "You're just begging to go back into uniform, pounding a beat in the sticks"; Bannion was told it was his final warning
  • that evening, Bannion spoke to his beloved young wife Katherine or 'Katie' (Jocelyn Brando) about his determined doggedness to get answers, and his near-decision to quit the force: "What am I supposed to do, hold onto my job by just stringing along? Afraid to look to the left or to the right because I might see something that they don't want me to see?" She encouraged him: "You just keep leading with your chin and don't you compromise"; in preparation for their night out at the movies, Katie proposed to drive over and get their teenaged baby-sitter Maxine ("Be back in a minute")
  • the Syndicate decided to intimidate Bannion by retaliating against him; there was a shocking scene of a car bombing (with a blinding explosion outside Bannion's house) that accidentally killed his wife Katie as he was putting his young daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett) to bed inside; after the explosion, Bannion rushed outside, pulled open the driver's-side door and pulled his wife to safety, but she was already dead
Deadly Car-Bombing Sequence: Death of Bannion's Innocent Wife Katie
  • after his wife's funeral, the frustrated Bannion received little support from either Lt. Wilks or Police Commissioner Higgins into conducting an investigation of the car bombing; he accused them of avoiding the larger conspiracy involving politicians, the police, and the underworld; he accused both of them of being intimidated and taking orders directly from Lagana .
  • as a result, Bannion was essentially suspended and then declared that he was resigning from his position at the Kenport Police Department to pursue justice on his own; he turned in his badge, but refused to turn in his own gun; he vacated his now-empty and desolate house to take up quarters in a seedy hotel; one of his fellow officers, Gus Burke (Robert Burton), accused the crusading, vigilante rogue cop/hero Bannion of engaging in a "hate binge"; Bannion housed and often visited his young daughter Joyce in the apartment of his in-laws, Marge (Kathryn Eames) and Al (John Crawford - she hadn't been told the truth of her mother's death
Vince Stone's Moll Girlfriend Debby Marsh in The Mobsters' Penthouse
  • in the gangsters' penthouse, Vince met up with his moll girlfriend Debby Marsh, who was mixing drinks and had just returned from shopping: ("Six days a week she shops. On the seventh, she rests. All tired out"). The dizty female bragged about her new perfume: "Something new. It attracts mosquitos and repels men" - except for Vince; Lagana arrived to chastize Vince for dating the crazed drunken Debby, and Vince's pretty-boy assistant and hit-man Larry Gordon for lousing up two contracts: the murder of Lucy and the car-bombing: ("Throwing the Chapman girl out on a county road brought us all the advertising we didn't want. Killing Mrs. Bannion - how stupid can you get?...I can't afford people who make mistakes")
  • Lagana also informed Vince that Bertha Duncan had upped her 'blackmail' "salary" demands to $500 a week; he claimed she would still be paid as long as she withheld her husband's letter of confession from the police and kept it in her safe deposit box; Lagana refused Vince's offer to eliminate Bannion since it was too risky
  • meanwhile, Bannion had eroded his idealistic, law-abiding principles by engaging in a one-man, unlawful, and embittered crusade to apply "heat" against suspected corruption, after the tragic car-bomb murder orchestrated by sadistic, viperous gang members; he threatened to personally tie big-time untouchable mob boss Mike Lagana to the killing of his wife
  • Bannion's investigation led him to a list of mechanics in town who might have constructed the car bomb that killed his wife; he was clearly denied information by uncooperative dealer Mr. Atkins (Dan Seymour) at the Victory Auto Wrecking graveyard, where a suspected mechanic named Raymond (Slim) Farrow had recently died; [Note: Undoubtedly, Slim had been eliminated by either Vince or Larry to keep their connection to Lagana a secret]; however, courageous Selma Parker (Edith Evanson), a crippled secretary-clerk from the auto yard office, risked her life to provide Bannion with crucial evidence about who had hired Slim to wire the car (she mentioned a man named Larry who asked Slim to call him at a place called The Retreat)

Uncooperative Auto Wrecking Yard Dealer Mr. Atkins (Dan Seymour)

Brave Secretary-Clerk Selma Parker (Edith Evanson) Speaking to Bannion
  • later at The Retreat's bar, Debby watched as Bannion resisted Stone's brutal attack on a blonde bar-fly named Doris (Carolyn Jones) cheating at dice (by burning her hand with a cigar butt); he confronted the thug: "You like working girls over, don't you?...Maybe you're the one that worked over Lucy Chapman"; Debby was impressed by his courageous fortitude, and offered to buy Bannion a drink, but he declined: "With Vince Stone's money? I'd choke on it"
  • she pursued after him on the street, and then took a cab with him to his Marland Hotel room, where she visited with him; she commented on the stark room: "Say, I like this. Early nothing." She also told him about her relationship with Vince: "You gotta take the bad with the good" - and that the good meant an expensive lifestyle: "Clothes, travel, expensive excitement. What's wrong with that?...The main thing is to have the money. I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better"
  • he wasn't interested in romance with her and sent her away when she reminded him of his late wife, after she remarked: "Oh, well, you're about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs. Didn't you ever tell a girl pretty things? You know, she's got hair like the west wind, eyes like limpid pools, skin like velvet?" He denounced her: "I wouldn't touch anything of Vince Stone's with a ten-foot pole"
  • afterwards in the penthouse where a group was playing cards (including Commissioner Higgins!), the jealously-vindictive Stone had already been informed by Larry that Debby had met up with Bannion, rather than her claim that she went to the "late show" at The Gaiety Club; he suspected that Debby had divulged information to Bannion and cheated on him: ("I thought maybe you and Bannion played footsie while my back was turned"); he meanly grabbed her tightly, manhandled her, and then tossed a pot of scalding hot coffee (off-screen) on the left side of her face and disfigured her. Her painful screams were heard from the adjoining room, as he yelled at her: "You lyin' pig!...I'll fix you and your pretty face"

Vengeful Vince Angrily Manhandling Debby Before Disfiguring Her

Vince Reaching For Hot Coffee Pot
The Infamous Coffee Pot Face Scalding Scene in the Mobsters' Penthouse
  • while Commissioner Higgins took her to the doctor, Stone called Lagana and received his OK, for "insurance" sake, to rub Debby out; Lagana wanted assurances that no trace of her would remain; realizing that her days were numbered, Debby joined forces with the homicide detective for revenge, and sought out Bannion in his hotel room in the middle of the night
  • Debby told the detective what had happened, and then implicated others with the Syndicate, including the Police Commissioner, "Gillen from the City Council, George Fuller, Vince's lawyer, and Larry Gordon"; she became worried that revenge-minded Bannion didn't care at all about her: ("You don't care what happened to me. You don't care about anything or anybody. I was followed when I came here with you. That's why I got this"); she also thought of her future: "I guess a scar isn't so bad, not if it's only on one side. I can always go through life sideways"
  • she identified Gordon (and his location), and Bannion assumed that he was the individual (imported by Vince from Chicago) who arranged for the killing of Lucy Chapman and the dynamiting of Bannion's car; during Bannion's intense questioning and brutal near-strangulation of Larry in his Wilton Apartments room the next morning, he revealed that Tom Duncan was on Lagana's payroll for years, and also suggested that Bertha Duncan was blackmailing both Lagana and Stone with her husband's confession-document in her safe deposit-box (for $500/week); Bannion left with a threat: "I'm through with ya. But your friends aren't. I'm gonna spread the word that you talked. You're out of business, thief"; it was a perfect way to indirectly rid himself of the murderous hitman; when word got out that Gordon might have provided damning information, he was shot twice by his partners fleeing at the airport and then was deep-sixed in the river (all off-screen)
  • Bannion also decided to confront Bertha Duncan at her home one more time - she refused to confess or divulge any complicity; he was disgusted by her glee about her husband's suicide: ("You were even happy when your husband blew his brains out"), and he was tempted to strangle her for her collusion with the Syndicate that had set up Lucy Chapman's death (to keep her quiet); he voiced his realization that killing Mrs. Duncan would bring down Lagana: "A city is being strangled by a gang of thieves and you protect Lagana and Stone for the sake of a soft, plush life...With you dead, the big heat follows - the big heat for Lagana, for Stone and for all the rest of the lice"
Bannion Questioning Mrs. Duncan Again - His Temptation to Strangle Her
  • after his short visit, Bannion returned to Debby's room in his hotel, to bring food and share conversation; after she asked personal questions about his wife, Bannion remembered his wife as a saint and didn't want to discuss her with Debby or with anyone; switching the subject, Bannion implied that Bertha Duncan must be killed - by someone - to automatically lead to the publication of the written evidence Tom Duncan left behind; Debby was reminded that Bannion's nature was different from Vince Stone's, and he wasn't capable of cold-blooded murder ("If you had (killed Bertha), there wouldn't be much difference between you and Vince Stone"); as Bannion left, he tossed his gun at Debby, an overt prompting and indirect suggestion that she should kill Bertha Duncan
  • Bannion was alerted that the police detail to protect his young daughter (staying with in-laws) hadn't shown up as scheduled (due to Lagana's control of the force); when he visited the apartment, he realized that Al's four army veteran buddies had ably taken over the job of protecting the girl and his in-laws from the threat of Lagana's men
  • following up, Debby went to Bertha Duncan's place, where she noticed that they were wearing similarly expensive mink coats - uniting them as victims of a spreading disease: ("I've been thinking about you and me - How much alike we are. The mink-coated girls....We're sisters under the mink"); they were both symbolic badges of those who benefited from ugly corruption; they signified the 'good-life' that they had both bought with dirty money; the scarred femme fatale cold-bloodedly murdered Bertha with three gun shots, as she was phoning Vince; inadvertently, she had saved Bannion from committing murder
  • and then after returning to the penthouse, Debby hid in the darkness awaiting Vince's return; from the shadows, she vengefully splashed Vince's face with hot coffee to scald it: ("It'll burn for a long time, Vince") and taunted him by showing him her own scarred face: "Look at it. It isn't pretty, is it?"; she then admitted that Bertha's murder would release the incriminating letter and ultimately destroy the gang and bring down Lagana's empire: "Bertha Duncan is dead. No more insurance for you and Lagana. The lid's off the garbage can, and I did it"
  • as she walked away into the penthouse living room, Vince fatally shot her twice in the back; Bannion burst in, fired back at Stone, and listened as Debby admitted to killing Bertha: (Debby: "I killed Mrs. Duncan"); after exchanging more gunfire on the outdoor terrace and resisting the temptation to kill Vince, Bannion arrested him; Wilks and Gus arrived to take him into custody, beginning with the charge of Debby's attempted murder; Bannion suggested that the police now had all the evidence they needed to jail the entire corrupt Syndicate, including Laguna, Wilks and Commissioner Higgins; Debby had avenged Bannion's wife's death and tried to change and adopt a decent life, but lost her own life (like Bannion's martyred wife) in bringing the gangsters to justice
  • during her moving death scene, the sympathetic Sgt. Bannion cradled Debby's head with her folded-up mink coat; although she was attended by a doctor, she realized that she was dying, as he knelt at her side; she pulled up her mink coat to hide the disfigured, hideous left side of her face in its pillow - he regarded her from her 'good side'; she longingly looked to Bannion for assurance and approval, and commiserated with him: ("Dave, I'm gonna die...I don't want to die")
The Tragic Death of Debby Marsh - With Bannion At Her Side
  • in response to her curiosity about his wife ("What was she like?"), Bannion eulogized Katie with an embellished description, speaking of her quick temper and loving nature, their close marital relationship, and how they had led a loving life together - often sampling each other's drinks or plates of food
  • as she died, Debby peacefully referred to Bannion's murdered wife: "I like her. I like her alot," although Bannion continued to lovingly describe his wife and didn't realize that Debby had expired; he smiled as he idealistically remembered more about his wife, his "princess" daughter, and their blissful family life: "Sometimes when I came home from work, she'd have the baby dressed up like a, oh, like a little princess. One of the most important parts of the day was when I came in and saw her looking like something that just stepped down off a birthday cake. I guess, I guess it's that way with most families"
  • the Kenport Courier reported: "LAGANA, HIGGINS INDICTED! - Duncan Confession Exposes Crime Syndicate"
  • the film ended with Bannion's return to his duties in his Homicide Department job after indictments were brought against Lagana and his corrupt Syndicate; he was called to another assignment (a hit-and-run accident) - and ironically told his assistant Hugo (Michael Granger): "Keep the coffee hot, Hugo"

Crime Boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby)

Lagana's Strong-Arm Henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin)

Vince's Moll-Girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame)

Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) - Investigating Tom Duncan's Unexpected Suicide

Kenport News Newspaper Report of Duncan's Death

Bannion's Cheerful Domestic Wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando)

Teletype Report of the Torture and Death of Lucy Chapman

Bannion's Superior Department Head Lt. Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) - Ordering Bannion to Lay Off the Duncan and Chapman Cases Due to Higher-Ups

The Retreat's Suspicious Bartender Tierney (Peter Whitney)

Bannion's Wonderful Family: Young Joyce and Katie Bannion

Lagana's Respectful Words About His Deceased Mother in Portrait

Intimate Moments Between Bannion and Katie (Katie: "You just keep leading with your chin and don't you compromise!")

Katie Just Before a Deadly Car-Bombing: "Be back in a minute"

Bannion's Unsupportive and Corrupt Police Commissioner Higgins

Bannion Resigning From the Force, To Investigate His Wife's Murder - He Kept His Own Gun

Vince's Assistant Larry Gordon (Adam Williams) - Criticized by Lagana For Lousing Up Two Contracted Hit-Jobs

Above the City, Lagana Worried About Hiring Vince to Kill Bannion

At The Retreat, Sadistic Vince Burning the Hand of Doris (Carolyn Jones) - a Dice-Dealer - With a Cigar

Vince Cautioning Bannion About Accusing Him of Torturing Lucy Chapman

At The Retreat's bar, Moll Giirlfriend Debby Marsh Took Notice of Sgt. Bannion - Offering a Drink and Then Following After Him

Debby Marsh Speaking with Sgt. Bannion in His Hotel Room

Debby With a Scarred Face During a Meeting with Sgt. Bannion - Joining Forces With Him After Being Disfigured

Bannion's Strong-Arm Near-Strangulation and Questioning of Vince's Hired Hit-Man Larry Gordon

Debby Noting That Bannion Wasn't a Cold-Blooded Killer Like Vince

Debby With Mrs. Duncan - The "Mink-Coated Girls" - Both Benefiting From Corruption

Debby's Cold-Blooded Murder of Mrs. Duncan Phoning at Her Husband's Desk

Debby's Coffee-In-the-Face Retaliation Against Vince

Vince Shooting Debby Twice in the Back

Dying Debby's Confession to Bannion: "I killed Mrs. Duncan"

Indictments Announced


Greatest Scenes: Intro | What Makes a Great Scene? | Scenes: Quiz
Scenes: Film Titles A - H | Scenes: Film Titles I - R | Scenes: Film Titles S - Z