Noir City: The Big Heat and Wicked Woman

Noir City 19 is in the rearview mirror, and it’s been a hell of a ride. I really dug the format of matching better known A pictures with rare and under-appreciated Bs. This year’s finale was definitely one of my favorite match ups.

First up, The Big Heat.

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Come on, you guys have all seen this one, right? If not, what are you waiting for? Remedy that shit, pronto, and then come back and finish reading this post.

We’ve seen a lot of corrupt cops this year, but this film features a lone wolf detective  (Glenn Ford) with a keen sense of justice and a personal vendetta that compels him to take a stand against dirty department politics. There’s always a dame, of course, and Noir City’s favorite bruised angel Gloria Grahame is unforgettable in her role as a gangster’s moll with her own ax to grind. Lee Marvin rounds out the crackerjack cast as her sadistic, abusive lover.

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This movie is jammed packed with great, quotable lines, including my favorite “You’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs!” and “We’re sisters under the mink.” I’m also highly amused by Glenn Ford’s Mr. Rogers sweaters in the family man scenes.

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He’s such a smoldering tangle of ferocious sexuality and barely-contained violence that it’s funny to see him trying to be this benign suburban dad. Even when he’s kissing his wife over a steak dinner, you get the feeling he’s a minute away from bending her over the kitchen table.

In a strange way, his intense but distinctly platonic relationship with Gloria Grahame, another legendary sexual dynamo, is what makes this movie so interesting and unexpected. And I love that it’s she who (SPOILERS) takes down the corruption racket at the end. She sacrifices herself to save Ford from abandoning his moral code and destroying his life with an act of cold blooded murder. The traditional notion of the macho vendetta gets intriguingly subverted and a damsel in distress becomes the hero by rescuing the angry man from himself.

One of my all time noir favorites. Highly recommended.

Side note: There was a class of high school students in the theater last night. First of all, kudos to their teacher for setting them on the right track, but also I really wonder what they made of The Big Heat. Thing is, there’s no point in preserving our film noir heritage if us hardcore fans all die off and leave behind no new audience to appreciate it. So here’s hoping that one or two of those kids will get seduced by the Noir City shadows and carry the torch for future generations.

Our last B picture of the year was a real corker. Sleazy camp-classic Wicked Woman was a
hell of a way to wrap up the festival.

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It’s a standard issue film noir plot, with a surprising twist. A drifter with a checkered past gets a job at a bar, seduces the bartender and plots to get rid of the drunken spouse who owns the place. Only in this one, the drifter is six foot tall knockout Beverly Michaels. And in another bizarre and unexpected twist, runty, raspy-voiced character actor Percy Helton gets the girl! Well, sort of…

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The title character Billie is unique and unforgettable, a woman who is both seductive and physically intimidating. She’s all mile-high legs and swinging hips in a tight white suit, mesmerizing every man in sight. But when she is home alone in her shabby room, her long, weary body slumps as if exhausted by carrying the weight of all that male desire. She is supposed to be wicked, but she somehow comes across as deeply sympathetic despite (or maybe even because of) her brash and bitchy attitude. You find yourself rooting for her to win, to make it to that Mexican beach, even though you know that the handsome lunkhead she’s hooked up with is too weak to make it happen for her.

There are some great suspenseful moments as their scam to sell the bar out from under the drunken wife unfolds. Also, how about that crazy fight scene? When the jealous bartender catches Bille paying off her creepy neighbor for keeping his mouth shut, he calls her a dirty tramp and slaps her. With a smaller woman, she’d just collapse into a sobbing heap and that would be that, but Billie fights back in a full on knock down, drag out brawl that proves what happens when you pick on someone your own size.

More spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen this film, go fix that and then come back. I’ll wait.

Ok, so that ending. Man, I loved that ending! I love that the hunk ends up emasculated and humiliated and Bille just skates and skips town with a fresh man on the hook before the bus pulls out of the station.

Side note: if you have a fetish for big feet, this is the film for you!

1934: A scene from the film 'A Wicked Woman', about a wife who kills her drunken husband. It was directed by Charles Brabin for MGM. Original Publication: Picture Post - 7822 - A Seat Beside The Censor - pub. 1955 (Photo by Frank Pocklington/Picture Post/Getty Images)

It’s clearly a campy, lowbrow B flick and it got a lot of laughs in the packed theater, but I have to say I genuinely and unironically loved this film. Mistress Christa, says check it out.

Well, that does it for Noir City 2017. Remember, if you like these flicks and reading my posts every year, please show your support for the Film Noir Foundation. See you next year!

 

 

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