Icons have a funny way of not necessarily being the most interesting emblems of the era. The truly fascinating performers are generally too prickly, too odd, too different to be wholly embraced. Barbara Stanwyck has become a film noir legend for “Double Indemnity,” but she’s not the genre’s best exemplar. There are others—Lizbeth Scott, Joan Bennett—who better encapsulate the shadowy world of tough dames, crooked cops, and double crossings, and chief among them is Gloria Grahame in “The Big Heat.”
Director Fritz Lang’s 1953 film, starring Grahame, Glenn Ford, and Lee Marvin, is deceptively straightforward as film noirs go: Good guy cop Bannion (Ford) gets under the skin of a gangster, sees his young wife murdered in a car explosion meant for him, and, using gangster’s moll Debby Marsh (Grahame), triumphs. He’s the hero—and yet he’s oddly impotent, incapable of actually triumphing over evil without the help of women, all of whom are brutalized shortly after coming into contact with him.
The most famous attack is that on Debby, who has a pot of boiling coffee thrown in her face by gangster lover Vince Stone (Marvin). Before that, she’s more concerned with admiring her reflection than with where the money is coming from. But once she loses half of her face in bandages, it’s as if her eyes are finally fully open; she sees clearly for the first time. And with that newfound clarity comes the numbing realization that blustering, trudging Bannion is no match for those against him. To right the moral imbalance, it’s up to Debby.
Grahame was a sui generis performer with a distinctive voice and a famously immobile upper lip that gave her face an odd mystery. As Debby, she delivers one of the most nuanced film noir performances of the era, equal parts wisecracking dame (“Hey, I like this,” she says to Bannion while surveying his grim motel room. “Early nothing”) and terrified pragmatist (“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better!”). While Debby begins as a dizzy dame, Grahame slowly, tantalizing unpeels layers until Debby becomes the film’s hero.
“Tell me about your wife,” she chirps to Bannion while hiding out in a motel room. She’s desperate for a change of topic, something pleasant to listen to in the anonymous room with her face ruined. But Bannion doesn’t want to talk about his saintly wife with a tramp like Debby; Debby can see it written all over his face. She’s hurt but understands, which makes us hurt. “You don’t want to talk about her. Not with me,” Debby says flatly. For a woman who has lived off of her good looks, the loss of her beauty could have been crushing. But Debby rises above and finds a way to avenge them all.
Swathed in mink, Debby appears on the doorstep of a very merry cop’s widow, who is the only one standing between the gangsters and justice. The widow is also clad in fur, about to go out on the town, but Debby stops her. “We’re sisters under the mink,” Debby says, then shoots her dead. Bannion had earlier stopped by with the same plan, but was too decent and uncertain to do the dirty work. Likewise, while he’s standing outside Vince Stone’s apartment building, Debby is inside, lying in wait with her own pot of boiling coffee.
“It’ll burn for a long time, Vince,” she whisper-snarls at him as he lies on the floor screaming. “It doesn’t look bad now. But in the morning your face will be like mine.” She yanks off her bandages and reveals her scars for the first time. Her victory is short-lived; during a gunfight between Vince and a typically tardy Bannion, Debby is shot. After the fighting is over and she lies dying, Bannion kneels beside her and finally tells her about his wife. “She sounds nice,” Debby whispers. Too late, Bannion realizes Debby’s true nature—but the audience has been on her side since she ruefully acknowledged her new face. “I guess a scar isn’t so bad. Not if it’s only on one side,” Grahame says with feigned nonchalance. “I can always go through life sideways.”
Mark Davis is a writer and editor. He cries every time he watches Debby Marsh die.
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