Monday, 3 August 2009

Cinemaniacal: The Big Heat & Bloody Vengeance

I signed up for a satellite TV service a little over a month ago, it was something I had been putting off for a long time on the assumption that I could not afford it, then after some changes with my pre-existing cable service, I discovered that I was paying the same for the world's crappiest cable service, and not getting any specialty channels.

When I signed up, I noticed a package that contained a channel called Silver Screen Classics, and it specialized in commercial free broadcasts of old movies, and I spent an extra five bucks to get that package.

I've come to realize that it's probably in the Top 5 of channels I watch fairly regularly, having reignited the love of old black and white movies that I had when I was a kid.

Anyway... All this preamble brings me to my topic, bloody, brutal revenge, and how it plays in the film The Big Heat, and later more "modern" cop-revenge movies. And be warned, if you haven't seen
The Big Heat, this post contains SPOILERS GALORE.

The Big Heat was directed by Fritz Lang, adapted from the William McGivern novel by Syndey Boehm and starred Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, and Alexander Scourby. It's the story of an honest homicide detective in a corrupt town named Sgt. Bannion (Ford) who's investigation of a policeman's suicide puts him in the way of mob boss Lagano (Scourby), and his top minion Vince Stone (Marvin), who put a hit on the cop that instead kills the cop's wife.

Sgt. Bannion quits the police, because they're no help, and starts picking apart Lagano's organization with the help of an angry disfigured mob moll named Debby (Grahame). Key is getting their hands on the suicide note written by the corrupt cop at the start of the film, it's a complete confession, telling where all the bodies are buried, and who did it. However the note's being hidden by his widow (Jeanette Nolan) and will only be released on the event of her death, because it's making her a load of extra cash from blackmailing the mob.

Now this is where the differences between the Film Noir revenge story of
The Big Heat and the more modern, more action oriented revenge story of the past 30+ years.

The modern action revenge story would have the hero holding the battered and bloody corpse of his wife and swearing brutal vengeance on those who killed her. He would then amass enough firepower to flatten a mid-sized city, and proceed on racking up a body count that would make Charles Manson flinch.

The Big Heat handled things differently. Sgt. Bannion goes through the whole movie carrying the same .38 snubnose revolver, only picking up a second from a beaten hit-man, and giving it to Debby. Instead, Bannion is all about getting evidence that could bring on what he called "The Big Heat," the sort of heat that a few bribed officials couldn't cool. The moment he realizes that he could bring on that heat by killing the treacherous widow, there's a moment when he really wants to strangle her with his bare hands, and gets into position to do it, but he doesn't. Partially because he's interrupted, but mostly because that's not the sort of cop he is.

And when he's got two of the men responsible for the death of his wife, he doesn't kill them. The first one, a low-level thug, he simply pumps him for info, and then tells his boss that he talked, letting the mob do the killing for him. The second, Vince Stone, a brutal thug who regularly abuses women, including scalding his moll Debby with a pot of hot coffee, is also kept alive, and turned over to law and order, even though he's begging the cop to kill him. Of course a certain level of sadism may be involved considering that Vince has already fallen victim to Debby's own form of vengeance, and is looking at a long stint in jail, ending with the electric chair as his future.

It's ironically up to Debby, the scalded moll, to do the vigilantism. She kills the sinister widow, and she gives Vince Stone a revenge scalding, but in punishment for her "crimes" she's shot by Vince and dies, just after confessing to the murder of the widow.

The film then ends with Stone, Lagano, and all their cronies facing federal indictments, Bannion getting his job back, and all being put right with the world.

Now folks are probably reading this and saying that they had to keep Bannion's hands clean, because he's a symbol of honest law and order, and henceforth can't be a cold blooded murder under the dictates of the production code.

And to a certain extent, I think that's true, the rules were pretty detailed back then, however, I think it takes more than just the end of the production code to explain such a fundamental shift in societal attitude.

In the late 1960s the Baby Boom generation rebelled from the society of their parents, viewing it as inherently unfair, corrupt, and incompetent. The Baby Boomers then got into positions of authority, and quickly proved themselves right.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, faith in law enforcement as a force for actual justice plummetted. Gone was Elliot Ness the Gangbuster, and in his place was Bull Connor the raging redneck putting firehoses and angry dogs on peaceful civil rights demonstrators. Those on the political right also saw law enforcement as being neutered by touchy-feely politics, and unable to do the job of being the thin blue line between order and chaos. Vigilantes became the standard, especially with movies like Death Wish, or cops that acted like vigilantes in Dirty Harry.

This attitude continued through the 1980s, the age of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Seagal, and to a lesser extent, Van Damme, and was taken to new extremes of violence and action in order to top the last one. This eventually wounded, if not neccessarily killed, the sub-genre, because the Average American moviegoer mostly regained their faith in law enforcement, especially after the turnaround of several cities following the "broken windows" policies of law and order flagship New York City.

Now normally, Hollywood would follow this shift, and to an extent they have on television, thanks to the popularity of police procedural dramas, but movies seem to still have the same 70s attitude.

Or maybe that's just me. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. The history of Movies are akin to the career of a boxer or '20s farmer.

    They both suffer thru plummelings that slowly toughen the skin and make them harder and callused...

    Well. Let me correct that. Make it a drugged up boxer and a '70s farmer.

    With toughened skins, they demand more. A better fix to give them the thrills felt the first time. The pounding of padded fists and sun baked skin still lacks that thrill anymore that forces them to demand even more to touch that sensation again. They're literally digging their graves and demanding that it be a little bit deeper every year.

    I'm betting that from the very beginning, the count of landed punches increased with every following movie to this day. In style or count.