A Femme Fatale with Gravitas, Gloria Grahame in THE BIG HEAT (1953)

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning when a shot rings out and a body slumps over onto a desk. A woman stands at a stairway landing looking at the body. She doesn’t seem too upset given the circumstances, the apparent suicide of her husband. The woman walks over and picks up the letter left by the deceased, quickly looks through it and makes a phone call. Something sinister is going on and our attention is keen on the screen. The story that follows and the unfortunate events that occur result from that gunshot blast and the investigation that ensues. This is a story that draws you in instantly, the world of a tough, moral detective, corrupt politicians, seedy underworld characters, and a femme fatale for the record books, the world in Fritz Lang‘s taut, unforgettable The Big Heat (1953).

Based on a Saturday Evening Post series and novel of the same name by former Philadelphia crime reporter William P. McGivern with screenplay by Sydney Boehm, The Big Heat, is one of those movies I want to force everyone to watch. The action kicks off when detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) becomes suspicious of another cop’s suicide. As Bannion begins to poke around he discovers a world of crime in which players are willing to go far and corruption that runs deep. This is an ugly world of bad people and the presentation is stark thanks in large part to terrific performances all around. Glenn Ford is perfect as the honest cop with violence simmering under the surface with Jocelyn Brando playing his innocent wife, Katie. Jeanette Nolan is great as the holder of secrets that can bring down the bad guys. As Bertha Duncan, the widow of the deceased cop, Nolan uses her husband’s suicide for gain and is as rotten as the worst of the bad guys and the worst of them is Lee Marvin as Vince Stone, the top henchman in the deeply entrenched syndicate run by Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) who is also appropriately menacing. By far the most memorable performance in The Big Heat, however, is delivered by Gloria Grahame. Fresh off her supporting Oscar win for Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and The Beautiful, Grahame should have taken home Oscar again for her portrayal of gangster’s moll, Debby Marsh. Grahame’s Debby is also my choice for the Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) for which this post is intended.

Gloria Grahame is such an interesting actor it’s difficult to peg her down. She had a natural earthiness about her and comes across as a modern woman, not necessary of the time her stories take place. Gloria can be naïve, coquettish, sexy, determined, and could cut any tough guy down to size. The Big Heat is Grahame’s first of two movies with Fritz Lang, the second being Human Desire in 1954 also starring Glenn Ford. It’s her Debby Marsh in The Big Heat that makes Grahame a noir icon following her other Oscar-worthy performance in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. In both instances Grahame did not necessarily need to do a lot to portray multilayered characters and The Big Heat, in which she essentially plays two roles in one woman, is a great example of that.

In the first half of The Big Heat we see Debby as a beautiful, bubbly, airy girl who is putting up with some abuse from the thug she chooses to live with. One doesn’t get the sense that Debby’s naïve to the point of not being aware of her situation. Her wisecracks take care of that. Instead, we are assured that she puts up with abuse because of the lifestyle she enjoys like the mink coats and the penthouse. It’s a selective oblivion she lives in giving a bit of her own back when situations permit.

Lee Marvin as Vince Stone and Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh

Gloria Grahame’s journey in The Big Heat is something to behold. She is the heart of the film while also transitioning into a vengeful femme fatale and ultimately into a saint and hero, settling the final score when Bannion cannot. The transition happens after a supremely disturbing scene, perhaps the most disturbing of any movie, when Vince Stone scalds her face with a pot of coffee. Debby later pays Vince back in kind and ultimately brings down the entire crime syndicate when she kills Bertha Duncan in one of the best scenes in the movie. “We are sisters under the mink” Debby tells Bertha referencing how they both sold their souls before she puts three bullets into the widow whose death guarantees the release of her husband’s suicide letter laying bare the details of the syndicate.

Debby Marsh is not only a memorable femme fatale, but one of the greatest movie characters of all time. The style with which the film is directed is magnified by the way Grahame moves in the film and her character’s tribulations throughout. Debby Marsh is so iconic, in fact, that Annette Bening recreated her for her character in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990) down to a copy of the black Jean Louis gown worn by Gloria in the hotel scene when she meets with Bannion. And speaking of the costumes, note how Debbie Marsh is dressed in white when she is “bad” and in black in the second half when redemption is at hand. This not-so-subtle message illustrates Debby’s complexity. Also, when she’s “good” she commits a bad act. Redemption comes at a high cost.

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning when a shot rings out, a body slumps over onto a desk and The Big Heat begins. The story that follows and the unfortunate events that occur result from that gunshot blast and the investigation that ensues. This is a story that draws you in instantly, the world of VICE…DICE…CORRUPTION! as the tagline of Fritz Lang’s thriller shouted. What should have also been spotlighted on those posters is a femme fatale with gravitas. That’s Gloria Grahame’s exceptional talent and she’s the best darn thing in a film that retains its power seven decades after it was released.

For the Classic Movie Blog Association Spring Blogathon, Femm/Homme Fatales of Film Noir, this is for those of you going through life sideways.


24 thoughts

  1. Gloria Grahame is by far the best thing about this film – which is saying a lot, considering the other cast members, the cinematography and the script. She is the one who stands out most in my mind, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in her role.

  2. Gloria Grahame was one of the great femme fatales of American cinema! You’re right in that she somewhat captured that cross-section between coquettish and sexy. She makes THE BIG HEAT sizzle!

  3. Thank you for this excellent look at the heartbreaking and unforgettable Debby Marsh.

    The Big Heat is a film I can never turn away from. Perhaps I saw it a week ago, but if it is airing, I am watching again. Fritz Lang had a way of making you think and feel a dozen things at once with his movies. With a character like Debby and an actress like Grahame, he was able to give us worlds.

  4. Gloria Grahame knew how to act. The Big Heat is one of her best. I just saw her in Sudden Desire, and even though she is in a supporting role playing against Joan Crawford, she can hold her own.

  5. Thanks for insightful look at THE BIG HEAT and the uncomparable Gloria Grahame. Speaking dialogue, her cadence was pitch perfect.Her non verbal communication from simply breathing to the way she carried herself was the most nuanced of any American actress of her generation. Truffaut said it best- ” It seems that of all the American film stars, Gloria Grahame is the only one who is also a person”.

  6. OMG – Gloria is EVERYTHING in this film. Once you see her here, you can never forget her and will spend your life hunting down her great performances.She sure was something. Excellent post!

  7. I love Gloria Grahame in this movie. But lets be honest, anyone who hooks up with Lee Marvin onscreen – prior to his 1965 AA award – is just asking for trouble. For a 1953 Film Noir, The Big Heat has large female body count. Its not only Gloria and Mrs. Corrupt Police Guy, Mrs. Glenn Ford gets the chop too. Well, at least Glenn makes it to the end.

  8. Love this post. I agree with everything you say about Grahame. I’ve tried to write about this film, and just can’t capture what I want to say. You’ve done it so well. It’s just really an experience to take in—and gives you such unsettled feelings about vengeance you can’t let it go. Just like with M, Lang knows how to make us feel so uncomfortable–and be absolutely absorbed in his narrative while feeling it!

  9. Grahame ranks in my top three femme fatales. I don’t think I have ever seen a film where did not like her performance. Thanks for participating!

  10. Great review Aurora. This is an unforgettable film and Gloria Grahame is unforgettable in it. She was an excellent actress with a “innocent” sexiness that was unique. This came from her own persona, however devious she could be in life.She was a perfect femme fatale, on film as in life.

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