“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Flick Lit # 21: The Big Heat

An ex-US Army sergeant (he served from 1943 to 1946, and won the Soldier’s Medal for saving the crew of a bombed tanker) and former police reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, William P. McGivern’s public persona was that of a dutiful citizen who reinforced the status quo. When he turned to writing hard-boiled crime novels, however, the gamekeeper turned poacher’s stories concerned themselves with the activities of those who play in the cracks between law and order. He wrote mainly about ‘state crimes’, specifically police collusion in official corruption; the titles – Shield For Murder (1951), The Crooked Frame (1952), The Big Heat (1953), Rogue Cop (1954), Odds Against Tomorrow (1957), and Savage Streets (1959) – tell their own tale. McGivern’s protagonists were for the most part honest men suffocating in the poisoned atmosphere of state-sanctioned corruption, men driven to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. The theme fascinated McGivern, because “the frustration of our society forms a powerful thrust for people to take the law into their own hands and, while this is a tempting indulgence, I have tried to make it plain in my books that it never really works.” First serialised in the Saturday Evening Post, The Big Heat is perhaps the most hard-bitten, cynical example of how the ordinary individual will always be doomed to fail when confronted by money, power and murderous greed. “In William McGivern’s brilliant portrayal of suburban versus urban angst,” writes Woody Haut in Pulp Culture, “the mob blows apart Detective Bannion’s cosy middle-class home not long after (he) and soon-to-be-deceased wife discuss child development over gin and tonics.” A prototypical Dirty Harry, Bannion abandons his ‘official’ role as police detective and pursues the mobsters until he has gained revenge for the murder of his wife. In the process he loses his soul: “Something had ended this morning. Now he was starting over, not with hatred but with sadness.” While the words are wistful, Bannion is forced to acknowledge that he has become unfit to care for the child he set out to protect by any means necessary. A refugee from Nazi Germany, director Fritz Lang was also concerned with social consciousness, the impact of a brutal state on the isolated individual, and the links between police behaviour and organised crime. The Big Heat (1953) was the perfect vehicle. Although McGivern’s prose was bleakly sparse, Lang stripped the story back to its bare essentials, while Charles Lang’s chiaroscuro photography and off-kilter framing became a classic example of film noir’s German expressionism. The casting too was clever. Glenn Ford generally played run-of-the-mill good guys, and thus his transformation into seething killer was all the more dramatic. But the supporting players upstaged even Ford’s performance: Lee Marvin as the apparently deranged hoodlum, Gloria Grahame defining the roll of gangster’s moll. The violence is sadistic and unflinchingly brutal, although the film’s most celebrated scene, in which Marvin throws a pot of scalding coffee into Grahame’s face, happens off-screen, a trick that didn’t escape Quentin Tarantino’s notice. While the film was one of a number inspired by the 1950’s US Senate organised crime investigations – including Hoodlum Empire (1952), Captive City (1952) and The Phoenix City Story (1955) – The Big Heat is notable for the consummate care Lang brought to each and every frame; every scene is directed as if it will be his last. Thus, when the denouement arrives and Bannion wins out against the implacable forces of state injustice – aided by a motley crew of cripples, old army buddies and even the femme fatale, Grahame – the film transcends its crime and noir roots to provide an ending as moving as any in the canon of film.- Michael McGowan

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