One writer on this film, Fritz Lang’s noir thriller, The Big Heat, comments that it inverts the usual femme fatale narrative device and makes Bannion (Glen Ford) the male exterminating angel, shall we say. I don’t see it quite that way.
Bannion is a police detective who works in a city totally in thrall to the local mob boss, and his commissioner is trying to get him to lay off a case. Seems a cop killed himself because he couldn’t stand being on the take anymore, and he left a detailed letter for the district attorney. His calculating wife sees a chance to ride the corrupt gravy train forever, and instead of mailing the letter, hides it away and uses it to extort a monthly allowance from the mob.
If Bannion is un homme fatale, he’s an innocent one. He just wants to get the thugs out of the city. The bar floozy who starts him off on the case is murdered – she’s no. 1. Tortured first by Stone (Lee Marvin in a ghoulish turn) who delights in using hot objects – cigarettes, coffee – to damage pretty women.
The thugs decide to eliminate Bannion (as Stalin said, “No man, no problem.”) but Larry the hitman messes up again and ends up car-bombing his wife instead. She loved Bannion – she’s no. 2
When he’s digging for leads in a bar called The Retreat, Bannion sees Stone venting his irritation on a girl in a crap game by burning her hand. Nobody else seems to mind – it’s all good fun, but Bannion stands up to him and scares him away. Stone’s girl (Gloria Grahame) is always twitting him and his thug cronies for being little men terrified of their big boss, so she takes a liking to Bannion and his virile self-confidence. She follows him out and gets herself invited up to his room. Maybe with his wife gone, he needs a little company, but he’s not interested. When Stone finds out, he figures she gave something away to him and he scalds half her face with a pot of hot coffee. She’s on her way to being no. 3, but it takes a while longer.
These three women are all beautiful and attracted to Bannion, at least enough to give him their confidence. (No. 1 never makes a pass at him. She just gives him a lead, which he rejects at first, because he thinks she’s a dishonest hooker looking to cash in somehow. Perhaps we should call this flick, Bannion: Or Virtue Unrewarded.) But before we see Bannion as the inverted femme fatale, let’s remember that he really doesn’t entice these dames at all, not on purpose. But he does seem to be the figurative kiss-of-death for the young, beautiful, and female.
Then there’s Mrs. Duncan, the wife of the suicide, who entices him, and she dies! She’s no. 4, or actually no. 3, since Stone’s coffee gal comes for a visit with her “sister under the mink” and plugs her first. Bannion, however, was completely taken by her fake distress when he questioned her immediately after hubby drilled his own head with a bullet. Notice, she’s not a young, sexy, silky-skinned thing – she’s middle-aged.
Finally, there is the interesting old lady who works in the junkyard where the mechanic who rigged his car with dynamite used to work. She overhears his conversation with her boss who is tight-lipped, and she follows him outside for a surrreptitious encounter by a chainlink fence that sets him off with another lead. Then she helps him nail the thug who planted the bomb by getting him to the door and making him drop his guard. She’s too old to be in the sexual running, so she just does what’s right.