Somebody's going to pay because he forgot to kill me, this was the tagline featured on the poster for Fritz Lang's dark film noir classic The Big Heat which establishes the films undercurrents of violence and revenge. The plot places the films lone uncompromising homicide detective Dave Bannion, played by Glen Ford, in direct opposition to a society corrupt at almost every level, ranging from the mob to the police department itself. The films themes of corruption, violence, vengeance and individual struggle are seamlessly expressed through Lang's use of economical storytelling, expressionistic lighting, unrelenting performances, costumes and use of set and décor.
The Big Heat takes its place amongst a plethora of contemporary films dealing in similar concepts of widespread social corruption, focusing especially on the prevalence of organized crime in America, from the smallest of towns to the greatest metropolis's. Notable films include The Enforcer from 1951, Robert Wise's The Captive City (1952), Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City (1952 and 1955 respectively), Joseph Lewis' The Big Combo (1955) and Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A. of 1961. The Big Heat from 1953 emerges as the darkest of these films. The historical context the film was produced in is hinted at within the film itself when crime boss Lagana alludes to actual life Mobster Lucky Luciano, fearing his clash with Bannion might lead him toward "the same ditch with the Lucky Luciano's".
In discussing surfaces in The Big Heat it is important to emphasize the films literal fascination with surfaces, human faces, lighting, locations, etc. Perhaps the scene that the film is best known for is where gangster moll Debby Marsh, played by Gloria Graham, has a pot of boiling hot coffee splashed across her face by the sadistic thug Vince Stone, played by Lee Marvin. The result is that Debby's face is terribly disfigured, a literal destruction of a surface. However, the act actually transforms Debby from a simple bimbo into the film's heroine. Her previous character relied on good looks to charm her way into money, her main occupation being shopping. These good looks were merely a surface and deceiving, her inside actually vacant and manipulative. With the destruction of those good looks she is forced to reevaluate herself as a person, which leads her eventually to confront the evil forces she once consorted with.
Vince Stone on the other hand, played by the rather dashing Lee Marvin, is preoccupied with destroying surfaces. The darkness within him boils outward with destructive zeal, first he not only murders Tom Duncan's ex-mistress Lucy Chapman after she approaches Bannion, but brutally tortures her by burning her with cigarette buttes. Burning turns out to be Stone's favorite form of destruction, he burns a woman's hand at a bar with his cigarette and of course, splashes hot coffee on the face Debby. In the end, the situation is equalized when Debby splashes Stone's face with hot coffee, thereby forcibly manifesting his inner brutality and ugliness to the surface.
Other surfaces prove to be equally deceptive. Bertha Duncan for example, wife of deceased police sergeant Tom Duncan, is the films desexualized femme fatale. She holds her dead husband in a state of callous disregard and seems only interested in money, wealth and greed. As Lucy Chapman, Tom Duncan's mistress, states, "The only difference between me and Bertha Duncan is that I work at being a B-girl and she has a wedding ring and a marriage certificate". Bertha is visually attached to Lucy's murder as after Bannion leaves the Duncan household from his questioning...