Two very different movies, a western and a film noir, blossomed from the paranoia of the early 1950s with identical scenarios. In each film, a lone lawman sees an Absolute Evil that he’s morally compelled to fight. (In one, that Evil is paroled gunfighter Frank Miller; in the other, it’s mob boss Mike Lagana.) In each, that lawman’s world is permeated by cowardice and corruption, and his would-be allies refuse to help fight the Evil. And in each, he takes a stand, risking his life for the town that deserted him.
These similarities between High Noon (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are anything but coincidental. Rather, they’re open-ended, metaphorical reactions to America’s Cold War crisis of conscience. Bombarded with threats from without and within—China! The Rosenbergs! The Soviets! The Blacklist!—the nation spent the early ’50s twisting itself into knots. Naturally, Hollywood followed suit, albeit in a genre-colored fashion that sufficiently distanced its stories from present-day political realities.
But make no mistake: both films are prescient political fables about fear and action. High Noon, for example, was informed by screenwriter Carl Foreman’s experiences being blacklisted and driven out of the country. Throughout the film, forlorn marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tries to rouse potential deputies in wholesome Hadleyville, but is met with cold shoulders. No one wants to join up unless a posse has already been formed.
It’s a distressingly pessimistic view of human nature, exacerbated by the film’s tick-tock fatalism and its unsentimental denouement: Kane, having vanquished Miller’s gang, drops his badge in the dirt and wordlessly rides out of Hadleyville. Little wonder that John Wayne himself decried the film as “un-American.” But given High Noon’s historical moment, given the atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion, what other course could Foreman have taken? How else could Fred Zinnemann have filmed it but as a tense, existential drama of lonely heroism?
Unlike the lonely Kane, The Big Heat’s rogue cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) isn’t out to make friends; he’s out for blood. He’s on what a colleague describes as a “hate binge”: witness by witness, gangster by gangster, he’s tearing apart the rotten machine that murdered his wife. Director Fritz Lang envisions small-town America as a hall of mirrors, with everyone watching (and watched by) everyone else through sliced-up, mapped-out compositions.
In short, 1950s America through Lang’s eyes is near-identical to the terrifying pre-Nazi Berlin of M (1931). Nowhere is safe. Lang’s camera lingers on household objects, imbuing them with sinister significance—the telephone, for example, turns into an agent of terror in the Bannion residence, and a coffee pot is jarringly associated with grotesque mutilation. The angrier Bannion gets, the more obvious it becomes: he’s not just fighting the mafia; he’s fighting the very ground he walks on.
Although the criminal machine is ostensibly eradicated, The Big Heat ends with a sick joke to remind you that evil never dies: Bannion, leaving the police station to go back on the beat, asks the office boy to “keep the coffee hot.” That titular heat—once manifested in a floozy’s hot coffee scars, the flash of a car bomb, and the explosion of evidence that condemns Lagana’s operations—is still around, a chronic symptom of modernity, and so are the cowardice and conformity that allow evil to thrive.
Consider this line, said to Bannion by sleazy, would-be informant Mr. Atkins (Dan Seymour):
Cops are paid to take risks; I’m not. You see, I’ve got a wife and kids too!
Then look at this monologue, delivered by would-be deputy Herb (James Millican) in High Noon:
I’m no lawman. I just live here. I got nothin’ personal against nobody. I got no stake in this… There’s a limit how much you can ask a man. I got a wife and kids. What about my kids?
These ideas must’ve in the ether in 1952-53 because, again, it can’t be a coincidence that both Foreman and The Big Heat screenwriter Sydney Boehm typed up the very same excuses. These are the pathetic, transparent excuses of a man who desperately doesn’t want to risk his slice of the bourgeois pie, let alone his very life. They’re the cries of the friendly witness, explaining why he turned yellow in front of HUAC. They’re the cries of the family man who wants “someone else” to protect him from the Reds.
I’d lack to wrap up with a few notes. First, all these ideas were inspired by J. Hoberman’s excellent cultural history An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, which spans the years 1946-56. Second, this post was originally planned for the Juxtaposition Blogathon, but things didn’t work out that way. You can view this as my retroactive contribution. Finally, here’s some proof that Cold War anxieties dug themselves deep into the imagery of these films:
That’s Dave Bannion telling his daughter a bedtime story as the car bomb detonates outside. Look at that flash and its unearthly glow: this image is right out of a sci-fi movie. The car bomb is a none-too-subtle stand-in for a Soviet nuke, expected to annihilate suburbia at any given moment. All that’s missing is the mushroom cloud.
And lest you think that the technology-heavy Big Heat has a monopoly on iconic Cold War images…
This is a sampling of the clock faces that recur throughout High Noon, reminding Kane (and the audience) that 12:00 is drawing near. The Cold War analogue is, of course, the Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists starting in 1947. Like the High Noon clocks, the Doomsday Clock’s hands were steadily ticking up toward the 12 in the early ’50s, tension mounting with every stroke. As in High Noon, Cold War alliances grew and died even as time was running out.
“Timeless” as they may be, these classics were branded with the imprimatur of the time period that produced them. The obsessions of the 1950s are built into their DNA. These commonalities bind them together: two films about lonely heroes in bleak worlds, taking uniquely American stands for what’s right—whether or not it’s possible for them to win.