Homicide detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the suicide of officer Tom Duncan, whose wife, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan) says her husband's been in ill health, lately. Bannion is contacted by the late cop's mistress, Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), who claims it could not have been ill health. Bannion revisits Duncan's widow, and asks for particulars on the couple's 2nd home, but she resents the implication. The next day, Bannion is rebuffed by Lieutenant Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey), who is under pressure from "upstairs" to close the case. Chapman is found dead after being tortured, strangled, and covered with cigarette burns. Bannion investigates, although the case is not in his jurisdiction. After receiving threatening calls at his home, Bannion confronts Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), the local mob boss who runs the city, and finds that people are too scared to stand up to the crime syndicate. When warnings to Bannion go unheeded, his car is blown up, and his wife, Katy (Jocelyn Brando) is killed. After accusing his superiors of corruption, Bannion resigns.
When Lagana's second-in-command Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) punishes a girl in a nightclub—by burning her hand with a cigar butt—Bannion stands up to him, which impresses Stone's girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Marsh tries to get friendly with Bannion, and first offers to buy him a drink, but Bannion refuses - saying she gets her money from her boyfriend, a thief. She follows him after he leaves the bar, all the way back to the hotel room he's living at. When Debby unwittingly reminds Bannion of his late wife, he sends her out of his hotel room. Debby had been seen with Bannion, and when she returns to Stone's penthouse, he accuses her of talking to Bannion about his activities, and he throws a pot of boiling coffee in her face. Debby is taken to hospital by Police Commissioner Higgins, who was playing poker with Stone and his group at the flat. With her face disfigured, and half-covered in bandages, Debby returns to Bannion, who finds her a room at his hotel. Debby identifies the man who had arranged the planting of the dynamite as Larry Gordon (Adam Williams), one of Stone's associates. Bannion forces Gordon to admit to the bombing, as well as revealing that Duncan's widow has papers which could expose Stone and Lagana, and is collecting blackmail payments from Lagana. Bannion refrains from killing Gordon, instead spreading the word that Gordon had talked, and Gordon is soon murdered by Stone's men. Bannion then confronts Mrs. Duncan, accusing her of betraying Chapman, causing her death, and protecting Lagana and Stone. Cops sent by Lagana arrive before he can strangle her and Bannion departs.
Stone decides to kidnap Bannion's young daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett), who had been staying with an aunt and uncle under a police guard. But the police guard is called away, at the behest of Lagana, and the uncle calls in a few army buddies for their protection. Bannion then sets off to deal with Stone, and as he walks out of the building, Lieutenant Wilks (Willis Bouchey) arrives, not only to help protect Bannion's daughter, but, also because he's now prepared to make a stand against the mob. Debby goes to see Mrs. Duncan, noting they are both wearing the same expensive coats and have benefited from an association with gangsters, and kills her. Stone returns to his penthouse and Debby throws a boiling pot of coffee at him. Stone shoots her, but after a short gun battle with Bannion, who had followed him, is captured. As Debby lies dying, Bannion describes his late wife to her in terms of their relationship, rather than the physical "police description" he gave earlier and tells her that she and his wife would have gotten along. Stone is then arrested for murder, Duncan's evidence is made public, and Lagana and Commissioner Higgins are indicted. Bannion returns to his job at Homicide.
The film was based on a serial by William P. McGivern, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post from December 1952 and was published as a novel in 1953. Initially, McGivern's novel was to be produced by Jerry Wald, who wanted either Paul Muni, George Raft or Edward G. Robinson (who worked with director Fritz Lang in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) for the role of Dave Bannion. Columbia Pictures paid $40,000 for McGivern's novel. Lang directed the film while Sydney Boehm wrote it.
Boehm made many changes from the novel such as name changes. Commissioner Higgins is not in the novel and Lieutenant Wilks is the corrupt policeman. An honest policeman called Cranston, who was in the novel, was also omitted from the film.
In the novel, it is only known that Deery was blackmailing Lagana in the end. Debby shoots her and then mortally wounds herself. After Stone is cornered by Bannion, he is killed by another policeman. Instead of taking place in Philadelphia, the film takes place in the fictional city of Kenport.
Columbia wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part of Debby Marsh. 20th Century Fox demanded too much money for the loan, so Gloria Grahame got the role.
Rex Reason was slated to play either Tierney or Detective Burke, but his agent wanted a larger part. Eventually, Reason wasn't cast and Peter Whitney and Robert Burton were cast respectively in the roles of Tierney and Burke.
In the scene where Stone and Bannion first meet each other, "Put the Blame On Mame" is played by the musical group at the bar. This song was used in the 1946 noir classic Gilda, which starred Ford and Rita Hayworth and was also produced by Columbia.
The Academy Film Archive preserved The Big Heat in 1997.
The New York Times and Variety both gave The Big Heat very positive reviews. Bosley Crowther of the Times described Glenn Ford "as its taut, relentless star" and praises Lang for bringing "forth a hot one with a sting." Variety characterized Lang's direction as "tense" and "forceful." Critic Roger Ebert listed the film among his category of "Great Movies" and he praised the film's supporting actors.
Writer David M. Meyer states that the film never overcomes the basic repulsiveness of its hero, but notes that some parts of the film, though violent, are better than the film as a whole: "Best known is Gloria Grahame's disfigurement at the hands of über-thug Lee Marvin, who flings hot coffee into her face."
According to film critic Grant Tracey, the film turns the role of the femme fatale on its head: "Whereas many noirs contain the tradition of the femme-fatale, the deadly spiderwoman who destroys her man and his family and career, The Big Heat inverts this narrative paradigm, making Ford [Det. Bannion] the indirect agent of fatal destruction. All four women he meets—from clip joint singer, Lucy Chapman, to gun moll Debby—are destroyed."
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Debby Marsh: "We're sisters under the same mink." – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Mystery Film
Nominated Gangster Film
In December 2011, The Big Heat was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Proclaiming it "one of the great post-war noir films", the Registry stated that The Big Heat "manages to be both stylized and brutally realistic, a signature of its director Fritz Lang."