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FILM : 'Big Heat': Noir a Dull Moment

February 07, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

Critical reaction to Stephen Frears' classy new film, "The Grifters," has brought film noir back into the limelight .

Frears' adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel was apparently inspired by the pulpy crime dramas of the '40s and '50s. He reframed their lean, moody style with a '90s look, glinty color replacing the depressed blacks and whites so typical of the genre. "The Grifters," with its shady morality amid big criminal appetites, is sordid, nervy and refuses to dawdle--just like the best of film noir.

Those descriptions fit Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat," screening at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center Friday night. The 1953 movie may boggle contemporary audiences with its bald plot contrivances and all those amusingly arch things the characters keep saying, but it remains a classic of the style.

As with most film noir, things happen fast but methodically. Lang doesn't get grandiose with the camera, and the sets are economical, mostly interiors of bars, hotel rooms, offices. The tone is taut but nonchalant, until bursts of action break up the deliberate pace. Everybody has the weight of conscience, or the hardness that comes from the lack of one.

Glenn Ford stars as a cop investigating the suicide of another officer. With a pretty, Betty Crocker wife (Jocelyn Brando) and a nice home, he's the picture of a happy family man, ordinary and a tad boring. But everything is turned on end when he finds that the cop was connected to Mike Lagana (played with sleazy brio by Alexander Scourby), the city's powerful crime boss. Lurking nearby is Lagana's chief thug, a sadistic murderer (Lee Marvin in a steely-creepy performance) who burns women with cigarettes.

Ford, an actor who can seem vaguely avuncular even when playing a tough, is shaken by all this evil. And when the gang targets his wife, he just about loses it. Lang works the genre's preoccupation with the dark side of people into a lather; Ford nearly becomes a crazed vigilante. The heroes in film noir are hardly ever heroic.

Along the way, Ford gets to deliver his share of cheesy "Dragnet"-style dialogue (the screenplay, based on William P. McGivern's novel of the same name, was written by Sydney Boehm). There are a few zingers, though, such as when he confronts an uncooperative bartender: "You ought to do radio commercials," Ford mutters. "You talk a lot and say nothing."

The best hard-boiled throwaways are given to Gloria Grahame as Debby, the murderer's spitfire girlfriend. She's the film's sexy gag who, by the story's weak ending, becomes its virtuous redemption.

As played by Grahame, she's also a film noir archetype: With her carnality pushed into a tight dress, a tangle of blond hair and a fast mouth, she could be the sister of Annette Bening's hot kitten of a character in "The Grifters."

What: Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat."

When: Friday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton.

Whereabouts: Take the Riverside Freeway to Euclid Street, head north to Malvern Avenue, then go west.

Wherewithal: $4 and $5.

Where to Call: (714) 738-6595.

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