The Big Heat (1953): Film Noir As Social Criticism

I am prompted to make this post after reading this week’s post from Lloydville from The Genealogy Of Noir.

In the broadest perspective, film noir belongs in the long tradition of American Gothic fiction, that dark vision crystallized in the tales of Hawthorne and Poe. A kind of counterbalance or reaction to American optimism, this tradition can have an almost savage quality, as though the decision to explore the shadowy realms of the American psyche has led to a determination to follow that path to its uttermost end, to the absolute limits of nightmare… In the true noir, we can identify totally with the protagonist — not least in his fated doom, or provisional salvation, in a world that has gone terribly wrong, for reasons that aren’t clear and that it probably wouldn’t help much to understand.

This is a good analysis far as it goes. But what about the European experience, and the influence of directors such as Lang and Tourneur?

Existentialism is European in origin and owes little to the US war experience, which for US civilians contrary to the European experience of the war, was essentially a vicarious trauma.

For example, Lloydville, in a previous post sees Fritz Lang’s, The Big Heat (1953), as a reflection of a collective paranoia rooted in post WW2 angst, but which again is a European phenomenon, not a North American experience. The Big Heat to me is more a socio-political critique of 50’s America. The protagonists dare to question injustice and corruption, which is a palpable reality not a delusion: the mobsters kill Bannion’s wife and threaten his child, with the police and politicians actively complicit. Justice is won only at a terrible cost and with no assistance from the ruling order. There are no femme fatales in this movie, only strong women, who do the dirty work required to bring a male-owned system of oppression and corruption to account.

4 thoughts on “The Big Heat (1953): Film Noir As Social Criticism”

  1. You make a good point — film noir definitely derived in part from European existentialism . . . but existentialism itself was influenced by Poe, via Baudelaire, so the lines of connection are complex.

    We can’t see film noir as simply a European product, an import, because it was so wildly popular with the American public — which must reflect an existential malaise that did reach North America after WWII, aroused by the horrific spectacle of the conflict and by the atomic bomb. It reflected a subconscious dread deeply rooted in the American psyche.


  2. Film Noir to me is a reflection upon the world experience from the depression and World War II. Bitterness with the feeling that upper class had it rigged to win. Little guy struggles against the power structure to try and win one (on rare occasion). The game is rigged, but fight on anyway.


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