August 11, 2009
On March 19th, 1953, Gloria Grahame was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (1953). Production on Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) began two days earlier, according to TCMDB. Little did she know during this string of dizzying successes that a couple of French cineastes were busy defining her image in perpetuity. In 1955, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir americain was published, a landmark study of a particular strain in American filmmaking that previous French critics had coined “film noir”. The term wouldn’t break into common parlance in the U.S. until the 1970s, but it would come to define Gloria Grahame’s career.
Borde and Chaumeton declared her the ideal femme fatale, one who intimated “cold calculation and sensuality” in her performances (for more on this book’s impact, check out James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts). She wielded her sly, cheshire-cat grin, nasal sing-song voice and girlish vanity as canny masks for her character’s various vices and insecurities. Her exuberant energy, almost anarchic at times, threatens to overwhelm the subtlety of her characterizations, and her unselfconscious sexuality made even the most sophisticated writer adopt the violent romanticism of a noir protagonist: Francois Truffaut wrote, “…as is the case of most of the Cahiers writers, the beautiful eyes of Gloria Grahame make you die of love….”, while academic Tom Gunning, in his magisterial Films of Fritz Lang, can’t help but add an aside that Grahame’s ability to make a fur coat swish “is one of the few arguments against animal rights activists.”
Along with Crossfire (1947) and In a Lonely Place (1950), The Big Heat is the defining film noir role of her career, and she delivers an astonishing performance. The Big Heat was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. The script was written by Sydney Boehm before Lang was officially hired on to the project in mid-February of 1953. Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Boehm was a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, and that “his specialty was crime…”. The script he delivered was a spare, unflinching tale of corruption, that which kills the wife of Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), and leads to his vigilante-like quest to take down Mike Lagana’s (Alexander Scourby) crime syndicate. Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, the mistress to Lagana’s right-hand man, Vince Stone (a lip-trembling Lee Marvin).It’s a perfect scenario for Lang’s continued emphasis on systemic evils and unchangeable destiny (think Mabuse or You Only Live Once), and it results in one of his darkest, richest films (read the Gunning for an in-depth investigation of its formal and thematic strategies).
Lang’s perfectionist tendencies on set were notoriously difficult on actors, and there are very strong indications that he and Grahame did not get along. McGilligan says vaguely that there was “friction”, and in an interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg about the film, Lang says, “…and there’s a whole story about Gloria Grahame and the picture I’d rather not discuss.” Which says all that needs to be said. Grahame was reputedly a “spitfire”, and Lang probably spat back. Regardless of their working relationship, their mutual genius is up there on the screen, and Grahame’s Debby Marsh is a marvelous creation, a girlish exterior hiding a sardonic sense of humor as well as a weary cynicism. When Bannion self-righteously asks her where her money comes from, Marsh replies, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.” This depressing realist comes out later in the film.
Graham enters the story lolling on the couch, answering the phone for Stone with mock sincerity, telling him “His Highness” Lagana is on the line, before strolling over to the mirror to check on her makeup. She exudes teenage rebelliousness and vanity, except her wit has more sting than your normal brat. Her burlesque of Stone’s relationship with Lagana reaches an absurd pitch when she starts singing a little ditty comparing Lagana to a lion tamer as she shuffles off to mix cocktails, indicating how “whipped” Stone really is, despite all his bravado. Grahame’s perky subversiveness gives Marsh select moments of independence, even if Stone doesn’t always pay attention to her jokes: “When Vince talks business I get my legs waxed”. She takes refuge from her life in humor and her physical appearance, which is the only way she can gain power in this sexist society. It is only after Bannion stands up to Stone that Marsh dallies with escaping her kept lifestyle.
After following the scarily stoic Bannion to his hotel room, Marsh opens up about her transcendent unhappiness. Grahame’s sexual invitation, as she composes herself on the bed, all shaded eyes and perfect posture, is duly swatted away by the detective. It is this flirtatious crime that leads to the Marsh’s famous scarring – a close-up of a bubbling coffee pot and an off-screen scream is all it takes for that scene of improbable violence to be inflicted by Lee Marvin. As Gunning notes, after this scarring Marsh avoids mirrors and acts as Bannion’s id, committing the murder he’s unable to. Meeting up with the scheming widow who is extorting from Lagana, and who holds the evidence to the syndicate’s downfall, Grahame greets her with the wonderfully sarcastic line, “We’re sisters under the mink”, as they face each other in matching furs. Marsh’s decadence is now ironic, another punchline, but this time in service of her redemption – and she goes on to return the coffee (see right).
McGilligan notes that the box office returns were “average” and the reviews “fair”, but Columbia Pictures were satisfied enough with the result to sanction a re-teaming of Ford and Grahame in Human Desire the next year, an adaptation of Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine (filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938 – Lang had already remade Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) as Scarlett Street (1945)). The Zola novel would have been rich material for Lang, with the central character a mentally unstable “sex killer” in a world self-destructing around him. This being 1953 Hollywood, however, this subject would never be approved for production. So, as Lang told Peter Bogdanovich:
“In an American movie, you cannot make the hero a sex killer. Impossible. So Glenn Ford has to play it, you know, like a Li’l Abner coming back from Korea-100 percent red-blooded American with very natural sex feelings-if such a thing exists.”
This project was totally a contract job, but Lang had held out hope that he could land Peter Lorre as the lead, and perhaps coax a darker performance out of the material. Unfortunately, Lorre declined, and Glenn Ford stepped in to an impossible task – to portray a straight-laced aw-shucks American in a story of sexual obsession and death. His performance is incongruous and jarring. Lang’s visual mastery is in full force, though, with a wordless opening consisting of the cold geometry of train tracks, indicating the web of fate he’ll soon be caught in. It’s a film to savor for it’s purely plastic virtues, as producer Jerry Wald drove the final stake into its narrative conception:
…one day he called us [Lang and Alfred Hayes] in and said, “You are both wrong.” I said, “What have we done this time, Jerry?” He said, “Look. This is called La Bete Humaine, the human beast. But everybody is bad in your picture. ” “Naturally, because Zola wanted to show that in every human being is a beast.” He said, “You both don’t understand it. The woman is the human beast.” What can you do against the producer?
Glenn Ford plays Jeff Warren, a clean-cut soldier returning from the Korean War. He’s seduced by Gloria Grahame’s Vicki, who is chained to her drunken, murderous husband Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), who’s eager to pin a death on her. Vicki attempts to seduce Warren so he’ll knock off Buckley and end her virtual imprisonment.
Gloria Grahame does not add the electricity of her turn in The Big Heat, but opts for a more reserved and maudlin tone, emphasizing Vicki’s opacity and unreadability, perhaps in an attempt to undercut Wald’s misogynist reading of Zola’s book. She is an enigma to Warren and to the audience, her character’s perversity kept in check until the final reels, where her proof of love, and proof of sexual attraction, is to kill.
I don’t like to emphasize the ghoulish backstory of Grahame’s life, but at this point in her career her obsession with plastic surgery started to affect her performances. Her upper lip, the subject of multiple rumored procedures, looks almost paralyzed, and it alters her speech. She still receives a grand introduction, though, lazing about the premises, and then showing off her new stockings to a preoccupied Crawford. Despite her physical incapacity and the limits of the material, Grahame delivers moments of subtle beauty, including her final, incantatory pitch for true love (which she equals with Crawford’s death). Even when Lang and Grahame are working with subpar material, their intelligence finds it’s way on-screen. It was received rapturously by Cahiers (which Lang was always surprised by), and it inspired one of Andrew Sarris’ finest pieces of writing:
Where Renoir’s The Human Beast is the tragedy of a doomed man caught up in the flow of life, Lang’s remake, Human Desire, is the nightmare of an innocent man enmeshed in the tangled strands of fate. What we remember in Renoir are the faces of Gabin, Simon, and Ledoux. What we remember in Lang are the geometrical patterns of trains, tracks and fateful camera angles. If Renoir is humanism, Lang is determinism. if Renor is concerned with the plight of his characters, Lang is obsessed with the structure of the trap.
In any case, viva Gloria Grahame, quintessential noir actress and so much more, an artist of whirring energy and sensuality, who was able to transform her girlish charm into characters dangerous, wounded, and majestically alive.