The Big Heat (1953) Revisited

The Big Heat

I am responsible for everything … except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world … in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.

– Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Being and Nothingness’ (1943) [my emphases]

The Big Heat

Debbie Marsh is an existential hero, as are the other major femmes in Fritz Lang’s brooding noir, The Big Heat (1953), the murdered barfly and the caryard clerk, who each take responsbility and act.

The Big Heat The Big Heat

The Big Heat The Big Heat

5 thoughts on “The Big Heat (1953) Revisited”

  1. I agree. At first glimpse, The Big Heat is a typical noir. Police Sgt. Bannion (Glenn Ford) is an isolated cop working against the system, and the mob-corrupted police establishment is telling him to lay off.

    But what makes this thriller a cut above your average noir, is that there are many average Joes* and Janes who put themselves at risk in order to help Bannion achieve justice and break the mob. This makes the film optimistic and hopeful, rather than nihilistic.

    In the end, it’s Bannion’s loving memory of his dead wife that keeps him sane, and enables him to reassemble his shattered life. As Nazi prison camp survivor and existential psychotherapist Victor Frankl teaches us, it’s the life-meaning that we choose that gives each of us the strength to carry on, in spite of our hardships and suffering.

    * You covered the Janes well already, so I’ll add in the Joes:
    • Bannion himself
    • Bannion’s brother-in-law and his army pals who guard Bannion’s daughter
    • Bannion’s lieutenant and the other cop who show up to help him (admittedly late in the game)


  2. Yes, but for a minute there I thought the last pair of Joes (the lieutenant and the other cop) might be getting ready to bump the protagonist off rather than to help him out. For me, the ambiguity at that moment actually underlines the existential themes noted above.


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