Is “The Big Heat” a Noir?

After see “The Big Heat” on my tour of “All Things By Fritz Lang”, I am curious to see what Thomas Hibbs might have said about it. Ostensibly, the film is a classic post-WWII era noir. It features Glenn Ford as detective and a family man who gets into trouble investigating the mysterious suicide of a syndicate sponsored police officer. Ford takes on the syndicate and the system but loses his wife, who dies in a car bomb explosion meant for him.

On my DVD their were interviews about the film with directors Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, both famous for their contemporary noir pieces. Mann calls the film a classic noir and explains a little the nature of period noir as emerging from the bleakness of perspective that cane after the war. Mann mentions existentialism as also reflecting this despondency and he calls it a time when people abandoned the belief in moral absolutes – rightly he seems to think. The facade of human values seems to explode at the encroachment of the chaos that is human nature and which wipes away all pretension of the good. This seems depicted in the shocking scene where Ford is reading “The Three Little Kittens” to his daughter when the windows suddenly flash and an explosion is heard, indicating the death of the wife and mother. Our unwillingness to face the absurdity of existence is perhaps depicted by the daughter’s belief through the rest of the film that mommy suddenly went away on a trip. This analysis is especially poignant when you think of Lang who made films on the aftermath of both world wars which highlighted the demoralizing effects of both.

However, Scorsese claims that the film, in spite of all the stark noir tropes, is not a noir. This is because it has a happy ending. Their is a eucatastrophic moment where things turn around for him. His corrupt associate cops repent of their corruption and make a new start by helping him. Strong friends show up to keep his daughter safe. And a woman sacrifices her own life in gratitude and resolves the situation in a way that he could not. Yet these events are not deux ex machinas. They flow from the same facts of human nature as the violence. What comes as a surprise to the main character follows a logical path of events perceivable to the viewer. Thus, the noir message is qualified and contradicted. It’s not darkness all the way down.

The difficulty that both auteurs have in classifying the film can be traced back to the analysis of the genre. It’s true that both world wars had the impact of shattering the sunny view of human nature that the West had prior to that. That sunny optimism was the result of a combination or synthesis between secular humanistic progressivism and Mainline liberal Protestantism. In becoming liberal in both cases, both had abandoned the theistic realism of the Bible and of religious orthodoxy. The Biblical view is not that “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world. Rather, the world was created with boundaries between order and chaos. Man was created with the mission to expand the spheres of order onto chaos. But man failed and was dismissed into the boundary lands of order and chaos. Ever since, humanity has been given a choice to return to God or wander in darkness. But God on His part is patiently waiting and providing sunshine and rain and upholding the stability if natural laws and keeping humanity from ultimate distraction for the time being. But He won’t be patient forever. Rather, there will be a day when God calls all accounts in. On that day, the halfway world will be destroyed and a new world free of chaos will be made for those who in their probation called upon God.

On this picture there is chaos in the world but there are also moral absolutes. There remains reason to live with hope and patience even if the flood waters rise. That also applies to the violence inherent not just the system but also in human nature itself. The realism of the biblical view braces you for war, even world wars. But liberalism became attracted to the sweetness and reduced the value of religion to that removing the rest. But the world wars proved that approach inadequate. However, as a result, the baby got thrown out with the bath water. We were left with existential despair and relativism.

But the biblical view holder need not kowtow to the existential demand for authenticity, since admitting chaos does not entail the denial of absolutes for her. Her view has not been proven false by war. Further, existentialism itself is inadequate because it unnecessarily enlarges the space for violence. People do discover life again. A good piece of evidence for this is that since WWII we’ve passed through a time of goodness so much so that the current culture has shifted back to pre-world war mainline progressivism as if those wars never happened.

As for “The Big Hear”, I suggest we call it “Orthodox Noir”, a film that recognizes and faces the darkness but also the light.

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