Many congratulations to Maor Goihberg, whose video essay “Beyond Our Control: An Analysis of Fritz Lang in America” was presented with the 2022 Beacon Bijoux Critical Award! Check out Maor’s masterful work below!
Beyond Our Control: An Analysis of Fritz Lang in America
by Maor Goihberg
Fritz Lang has been known to be a forceful director, so committed to realizing what he felt was the best take of each scene that he even put his actors at physical risk. While in Germany, the success of his films granted him complete creative control wanted, after moving to the United States he faced what Tom Gunning, in “The Flight of the Refugee,” defined as “the increased division of labour in the Hollywood studio and the different responsibilities and degree of control given to the director,” preventing Lang from exercising autonomy. Nevertheless, within this mode of production Lang was still able to make “‘termite’ art, small films whose style hid out in the details of the mise-en-scene,” and therefore “beneath an apparent conformity to Hollywood modes and genres and ideology, Lang fashion[ed] extremely personal and often experimental works” (Gunning, 356-59). In this essay I will look at how Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953) demonstrate the ways in which Lang translated certain stylistic and narrative conventions for the cinematic language of Hollywood within his limited realm of control.
Fury was Lang’s first American film, and was the one in which studio control was most evident. The film begins with the two central protagonists, Joe Wilson and his girlfriend Katherine, looking through a store window at a display of martial clothing and twin beds (Fury). The convention of two lovers dreaming of matrimony is hardly one uncommon at the time; however, as Gunning explained in “Flight,” “where Lang could assert almost monomaniacal control was at the shooting stage and what one could call the decoupage, the planning-out of each shot and sequence on paper” (358). It is in executing the shooting of the script where Lang could incorporate his own touch.
Lang’s control can be unearthed in the scene’s mise-en-scene and cinematography. As Gunning observed in “Meet John Doe,” the scene begins with “a slightly syncopated version of the Wedding March on the soundtrack,” while “the camera… pulls back and reveals a mannequin in a wedding dress.” After “the camera… track[s] to the left,” the film shows “the silhouettes of Joe Wilson and Katherine Grant… as they stare into the adjoining window display of the bedroom” (374).
In such a way, Gunning argues that “the camera movement draws the natural conclusion: from the wedding to the bedroom–the very image of sexual desire” (374). Lang is able to draw such an association using the camerawork and the music, evoking desire without altering the nature of the script or otherwise violating the rules of Hollywood censorship.
It is revealed that Joe and Katherine were on their way to the train station, as Katherine has to leave the city for a new job. Over time, Joe and his brothers raise the money to buy a gas station, and eventually Joe and Katherine plan to reunite. On his way to meet her, Joe is arrested for speeding; he is taken to the Sheriff for interrogation, on suspicion in regards to a ransoming incident (Fury).
In this scene, Lang uses point-of-view shots in order to engage with his most prevalent theme: systemification. The first shot, from Joe’s perspective driving down the road when a deputy stops him, evokes the sense of Joe as moving through a well-run machine of roads and transportation, maneuvered one way or the other by cogs such as the police.
Furthermore, Gunning argued in “Doe” how Lang, through “the very levelling-out of identity… constructs society as a series of equivalent slots into which anyone may fit” (381). At the office after the Sheriff read a profile on the ransomer that indicated he likes peanuts, he offers a bowl of it to Joe, who accepts. When Joe offers some back, he reveals he never eats peanuts, and a reverse shot of Joe (from the Sheriff’s perspective) shows him holding the bowl, fitting into the “slot” (Fury).
Joe is held in the jail, and news spreads through town of his arrest, told through a montage. Without discounting division of labor, it’s important to note that “Lang… cajoled most of his editors into letting him participate closely at this stage,” and this is especially evident through these montages (Gunning, 358). The film seamlessly transitions through overlap-dissolves between different people as rumors spread through Strand. Furthermore, each portion grows shorter as these rumors grow wilder, which gives a sense of increasing energy matched by an orchestral soundtrack (Fury).
It is important to note that while Lang may not have written the screenplay, he was chosen to direct because he was suited for the material, specifically because it dealt with vigilantism and justice. Lang explored these themes in M, partially in response to the emergence of Nazism; but in that film, Lang represented the Nazis through organized crime, most prominently with the black-gloved Safecracker, who pursued their target from a logical standpoint, even giving him a trial (M).
Fury, on the other hand, was Lang’s opportunity to explore the primal appeal of fascism. The main agitator in Strand was Kirby Dawson, a hoodlum with nothing better to do; indeed, the way that he conducted himself physically, slouching and so forth, evoked a certain sexuality. The man in the hardware store who, expressing his anger, cracks his whip only further emphasizes the primal reasons driving them (Fury).
Eventually, a confrontation between Dawson and an outsider who eggs them on pushes the townspeople over the edge, one boy shouting “let’s have some fun!” Gunning, in “A Whole Town of John Does,” notes “this atmosphere of jollity and high spirits, of carnival” as they march to the jail (385). Lang creates a fascinating connection between the primal atmosphere and systemification, as he cuts from a tracking shot of the gleeful mob to Joe, helplessly looking out of his cell, to a tracking shot from overhead capturing the mob’s perspective, coming closer to the sheriff on the doorsteps (Fury). Lang established a direct link between the mob, the object of their desire, and how their goal turns them into a one-minded force.
The Sheriff attempts to warn them off to no avail. The mob breaks through into the building and set fire to it. Though unable to break into the cell block, they add to the fire by throwing in sticks of dynamite. At the same time Katherine, who heard about Joe’s arrest, arrives at the scene, oddly silent; Lang cuts between different people’s reactions, such as Dawson satisfyingly smoking a cigarette, a boy chomping down a hot dog, and almost Expressionist faces shot in closeup at diagonal angles and closely lit by the fire. As Gunning explained in “Does,” they enjoy “an almost orgasmic sense of power” (391). The lynching serves as a form of sexual release, the primal energy driving fascist impulse.
Later on, Joe’s brothers discuss what has happened, Joe presumed dead, when they hear a voice and Lang cuts to Joe; while he previously wore a white coat and brown hat, here he is shown in a dark coat and hat, a shadow extending over half his face, evoking a death he has undergone. He gives a speech (depicted via a closeup of his face from their POV) about how he will allow members of the mob to stand trial for “killing” him, giving them the “legal death” which they would’ve deemed too good for him. The way in which Joe speaks to the camera is as if he is addressing the audience, certainly hungry for revenge against the mob, and puts them in an uncomfortable position which siphons the joy of seeing Joe’s plan come into action (Fury).
At the trial, while the District Attorney gives his opening remarks, the camera pans to a radio microphone, and the film dissolves to different people (at home, in workplaces, etc) listening (Fury). In this way, much as timepieces linked the members of Mabuse’ gang in Der Spieler, Lang links people across the nation through mass media (Dr Mabuse the Gambler).
The defense attorney points out that Joe’s body has not been found, therefore the charge of murder was baseless. Joe sends the judge an anonymous letter along with a ring Katherine gave him, supposedly found after the lynching (Fury). The way in which he uses one small object in order to confirm identity recalls the way the Sheriff held him on suspicion based on a dollar bill and peanuts, but now he uses it to destroy the defendants the same way that they used such evidence as an excuse to destroy him, further blurring the distinction.
Towards the end of the trial, Katherine deduces through various clues that Joe was still alive and confronts him. Joe at first tells her off, but has a crisis of conscience, which Lang evokes by superimposing his troubled face over the defendants. Similarly, Joe is seen running through the streets, the film cutting to a shot of an empty road behind him (Fury). The emptiness evokes the death which he feels he is imposing on the defendants, even the death he has undergone internally.
In a classic case of studio censorship, Lang was forced to have Joe show up at the courthouse, thereby acquitting the defendants, and reunite with Katherine. However, Lang still imbues the scene with a personal touch: Dawson, having been convicted by the jury, runs towards the door when he suddenly stops right in front of the camera; a reverse shot shows Joe (Fury). Hollywood could only allow the film to take Joe’s perspective once he has redeemed himself, and therefore again identify with him; but in positioning the two against one another, through reverse-shots, Lang creates a sense of mirroring that is broken by Joe’s actions. This fits into the happy ending, but in a Langian fashion, characteristic of the way in which he sometimes had to work within the studio system.
If Fury was an example of Lang fitting into the studio mode, then Scarlet Street was a showcase for him taking back the reins, as he co-produced the film. However, he still had to deal with the Hays Code, especially challenging due to the sexual themes in the film. Nevertheless, these constraints turned into an opportunity. As explained by Paul Schrader in Notes on Film Noir, “because film noir was first of all a style… it worked out its problems visually rather than thematically” (13). Indeed, despite the censorship that prevented Lang from explicitly depicting certain behavior (though he veered close) he was able to use stylistic conventions and symbolism in order to evoke meaning.
Scarlet Street begins at a party honoring the protagonist, Christopher Cross, for twenty-five years of service as a cashier. Whereas his coworkers are boisterous, Chriss is shy. One particular instance is when they heartedly smoke cigars and Chris only reluctantly agrees, crossing his fingers. His boss J.J (who would leave the party for his mistress) also gives Chris a bejeweled pocket watch; the clock is a common Langian motif, and here Lang uses it in order to evoke the sense of gilded systemification, with Chris celebrated for his role as an under-individualized, under-sexualized employee (Scarlet Street).
After the party, Chris escorts his friend Charles to his bus, and is forced to walk through Greenwich Village. Under the pounding of an elevated train, Chris sees a woman being attacked across the street; he runs to her aid, attacking the man with his umbrella and cowers behind it, but when he pulls it down the film cuts to the woman’s face, and back to Chris, smiling glowingly (Scarlet Street).
Through the use of sound and visual editing, Lang establishes a direct link between violence and sexuality. This is only enhanced by the columns under the bridge, almost Expressionist in their oversizeness, representing the power that the situation instills in Chris (Scarlet Street). The fact that the umbrella serves both as a weapon and a shield also touches on the ambiguity of the situation.
Chris and Kitty stop at a bar, where Lang again invokes phallic symbolism: while Kitty plays with a straw in her mouth, and slowly leans with a cigarette into the candle, Chris barely touches the straw in his drink, unsure what to do with it (Scarlet Street). Kitty is a classic femme fatale, and evokes Der Spieler, both in the duplicitious Carozza and the seductive Countess, always smoking a long cigarette (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler).
What is most interesting is how Kitty is able to evoke sexuality while also appearing a damsel-in-distress. She tells Chris that she is an actress, but is also deceived by Chris who, embarrassed by his real job, allows her to believe that he is a wealthy painter (Scarlet Street). As painting was a childhood dream of his, much as was the prospect of attaining the affection of a beautiful woman, they become interconnected to his pursuit of Kitty and conversely, to her exploiting him.
The following morning, Charley stops by his apartment for a visit. Chris shows him a painting he is drawing of a flower, a POV shot from Charley’s perspective shifting between the canvas, a very beautiful, highly detailed illustration, and the subject (Scarlet Street). Chris’ perspective is highly subjective, and he tends to imagine and attempt to draw out more than there is.
Meanwhile, Kitty reunites with her boyfriend Johnny, who assailed her the previous evening. Johnny is a hoodlum like Dawson, except even more sexualized: he embraces Kitty with the same compulsion that he beats her. Furthermore, he forces her to meet with Chris, where she puts on a convincing act about financial difficulties in order to convince him to get her some money (Scarlet Street). While this evokes a damsel-in-distress, she also suggests that were he not married, they would be together: in this way, Chris is able to indulge in a wholesome fantasy of a hero, as well as more primal desires.
Chris enjoys neither in his real life, a dystopian counter to Joe and Katherine’s fantasy. He married his wife, Adele, out of convenience, and is constantly mocked by her. A portrait of her late husband, Homer, looks down on him, with a medal pinned to it, further driving his image as a “real man.” In order to attain money, Chris considered stealing from work but put the money back in the safe, still a cog in the machine; instead, he steals some of the insurance bonds from Adele’s drawer, a form of rebellion that does not jeopardize his everyday life (Scarlet Street).
Chris unexpectedly visits Kitty at her new apartment, at the same time Johnny is there. He only vaguely recognizes him, but gets a bad vibe (Scarlet Street). Gunning, in “The Fourteen-Carat, Seventeen-Jewel Cashier,” explained that “Johnny haunts Chris… as a phallic presence threatening to a character whose fear of castration has kept him in an infantile state,” and notes how Lang dissolved from Johnny “into a closeup detail of the snake in Chris’ painting, the coils seeming to grow out of Johnny’s body” (556). Johnny exudes sexual power, boysteured by his abiltiy to carry out violence, society’s other metric for masculinity.
The more Chris is enamored with Kitty, the more she drains him. At work, Chris worked up the courage to steal from the safe, evading suspicion from J.J. because he himself sought to deposit money from the safe, and therefore took no notice of why Chris, a model employee, would handle it’s contents (Scarlet Street). Chris’ instrumentalization as a cashier works to his advantage.
Meanwhile, due to Adele’s threats of giving away his paintings, Chris stores them at Kitty’s new apartment. Johnny, desperate for money, sells the paintings to a street vendor. The painting attracts the attention of an art critic (though they lack “perspective”), and they follow Johnny back to Kitty; seeing their fascination with the paintings, Johnny forces Kitty to pretend to be the artist. Later, Adele passes by a store window where Chris’ paintings are hanging, but signed by Kitty. After she returns home, while Chris is in the kitchen, she rants at him, accusing him of copying the “real” artist; Gunning, in “Cashier,” notes “the almost surrealist allegory of Chris’ sexual dillemma… dressed in a frilly apron… the huge knife in Chris’ hand” (557). It is significant that Chris stopped cutting when he heard Adele mention Kitty, and pulled it close to his chest: he now has a better idea of what to do with such a phallic object, almost cutting into this castrating garment, but drops the knife when Adele asks “you want to cut my throat?” (Scarlet Street). He is not strong enough to actually realize that fantasy as to kill his castrator, partially simply due to it being murder, but perhaps also due to a hesitance to fully emancipate himself.
When Chris visits Kitty, she again lies to him about financial problems. However, Chris is more fascinated by the fact that his paintings were sold for a great amount of money, and eagerly agrees to paint more for her, and she concedes to finally allow him to paint a portrait of her (Scarlet Street). Not only does he feel validated by the sale of his paintings, but in this con Kitty relinquished to Chris the illusion of sexual control, in allowing him to capture the image of her body.
Chris is later confronted by Homer, who faked his death, attempting to blackmail him. Chris tricks Homer into sneaking into their bedroom to steal the bonds, exposing him to Adele and allowing him to leave, the marriage voided. When Chris arrives at Kitty’s apartment, he sees her and Johnny in a close embrace, and runs off. Johnny beats Kitty, angered that the con was exposed, and goes to find a drink. Chris returns, and assures Kitty that he is not angry and that they can still be together, looking more into the distance than actually at her. However, her initial cries turn to laughter, and she mocks him for thinking that she could be attracted to an “ugly” man like him, unlike a “real man” like Johnny. Chris pleads for her to stop, and his distress boils over and he stabs her (Scarlet Street).
Unlike the mob in Fury, this was not necessarily the most natural outcome. Chris did seek a sexual release, but one based in his fantasy of heroism; indeed, in Chris’ case sexuality and violence were more twisted with one another. Johnny easily alternated between (and drew from) the two, which enabled his control over Kitty. Chris, on the other hand, was controlled by others, and when he realized he could not really break free, as Kitty would never gratify him and only further emasculated him, he expressed his desire through violence.
Johnny is convicted for the murder, as despite his pleas no one believes that Chris was the painter; during a courtroom sequence, Lang uses rhythmic cuts to shift between witnesses, showing how the narrative of Johnny’s guilt is formed, further strengthened by Chris’ own “admission” that he “never could paint”. The perspective of the police, the jury is shaped by the same system of “slots” that almost doomed Joe based on profiling. Indeed, at the end of the sequence Johnny pleads into the camera, to no avail (Scarlet Street). He has been squared into a slot he cannot escape.
Though safe from prosecution, Chris lost his job as J.J. found out about the thefts. Celebrating at a motel room, Chris begins to hear Kitty and Johnny’s voices in his head, and the guilty grows so strong that he attempts suicide until two people rescue him. He had the power to take Kitty’s life, but not his own. The guilt continues to preoccupy him, and at Christmastime he is sleeping on a park bench until awakened by cops, whom one recognizes as the guy who kept trying to confess. On the street he sees his painting of Kitty being carried away, having been sold for a high price, and Lang pans from Chris to the painting, as if she is looking at him, and cuts back to Chris, confused and horrified (Scarlet Street).
The portrait of Kitty represented Chris at the height of his self-deception, when he really believed that she desired him, an illusion further strengthened by the fact that people did want to buy his paintings, as if validating his perception. The illustration serves as a reminder of his regrets, not simply of killing Kitty but of the hollow pleasures he derived in the act. Now, the only sense of control he seeks is by exorcising himself, but he cannot do that either, a fittingly tragic end.
While Scarlet Street belonged to what Schrader called “the wartime period” of film noir, made on “studio sets, and, in general, consisting of more talk than action,” The Big Heat fell under what he called “the period of psychotic action and suicidal impulse,” where “the noir hero, seemingly under the weight of ten years of despair, started to go bananas” (11-12). Indeed, this film is darker and more unrestrained than his previous works, even though it lacks an excess of style.
The film begins with the suicide of Tom Duncan, a police sergeant. His wife Bertha finds a letter on his desk, and calls a gangster, Mike Lagana, who then calls his goon Vince Stone (The Big Heat). Whereas in Fury the radio was used to link individuals across the country, the telephone is used to depict the criminal underworld as highly organized, exercising control over the means of communication.
The film dissolves from Stone, responding to Lagan’s orders, to the crime scene, where Dave Bannion is investigating the death; it is immediatley confirmed as a suicide, but the letter is gone. While convinced by Bertha that Duncan suffered back pain, Bannion is called to meet with his mistress, Lucy Chapman at a nightclub, the Retreat, where she claims Duncan never suffered back pain and wouldn’t have killed himself. Bannion dismisses her, but as he leaves the film cuts to a group of people at the bar leering in his direction (The Big Heat).
The way in which Lang shot this is crucial to the sense of atmosphere: by showing a group of people, previously seemingly unrelated except by location, looking conspiratorially over their shoulder, Lang evokes the feeling that Bannion is outnumbered, and furthermore that Lagana’s presence is everywhere.
Much as with Fury and Scarlet Street is the issue of perspective. While Joe was arrested due to flimsy profiling, and Johnny convicted mainly based on his personality, Bannion dismisses Chapman because of her status as “the B-girl,” and believes that she is simply a blackmailer. The fact that he came there from his suburban home empathizes a class distinction which prejudices him (The Big Heat).
Additionally, the relationship between Dave and his wife Katie is interesting. While Joe and Katherine never got to experience the intimacy of marriage, and Chris was stuck in a loveless union, the Bannion’s have reaped the fruits of matrimony, so much that Katie smokes from Dave’s cigarette or drinks from his glass (The Big Heat). Bannion has a symbiotic conception of marriage, which is why he is so repulsed by Chapman.
Bannion questions Bertha, who dismisses Chapman and expresses anger at his question about their lake house (The Big Heat). Gunning, in “Circuits of Corruption,” makes the important point about how “the dissolve from Bertha Duncan watching Bannion leave… to a police teletype printing out the discovery of Lucy’s body on a county highway, not only expresses a cause-and-effect relation… but also a mechanical displacement of violent action into the circuits of communication, a Langian reduction of a character to information” (730). By diminishing Chapman’s fate to a paragraph, Lang depicts her as having been devoured by the system.
Bannion is warned by Lieutenant Wilkes not to pursue the matter further and leave it to County Homicide, evoking the sense of organized crime using systemification to cover up their crimes. Nevertheless, Bannion goes back to the Retreat, where he questions a bartender, who calmly tells him he knew nothing and, indeed, there was nothing to know about the death of a girl like Chapman. However, after Bannion goes up the stairs, the bartender makes a phone call, with Bannion eavesdropping; when Bannion questions him, the bartender mocks him and his efforts, and watches him go up (The Big Heat).
Again Lang creates a sense of Lagana’s omniscience. The way in which the bartender calmly tries to portray Chapman’s death as a closed loop, so futile in trying to solve that it takes care of itself, complements the way in which Wilkes tries to bury it using the rules of police territory. The way in which he looks up at Bannion, yet still enjoys a sense of power, represents the fact that he knows that whether in the depths or in the halls of power, Bannion will not get anywhere.
Indeed, this is best represented when Bannion visits Lagana. His mansion enjoys constant police protection, a cop telling Bannion “it is what it is.” When Bannion goes to his office, Lagana calmly asks him, a cigar in his hand, “what is it this time? Benefit drive, pension fund?” (The Big Heat). Unlike Mabuse, acting in the shadows, Lagana is out in the open, exercising overt control over Los Angeles.
Bannion confronts Lagana, giving a speech about corruption and punches his bodyguard before leaving. Later at home, Katie receives an obscene threatening phone call; on her way out of the house, Bannion, having accidentally collapsed his daughter’s toy house, throws his wife his car keys, and while he is reading a story, the sound of the engine starting is heard before an explosion. Bannion runs outside and finds her dead (The Big Heat).
Bannion’s carelessness is the driving force behind much of the film’s events, as represented by his collapsing of the fragile, facile reality his daughter constructed: the death of Chapman, having refused to take her seriously due to his personal prejudice, and now his wife’s death, having confronted Lagan to satisfy his conscience. The mechanical sound of the ignition reinforces the role of systemification: much as with the “slots” in Fury, anyone can be in the driver’s seat if they have the keys.
While the Police Commissioner assures Bannion they will find the killer, Bannion demands that they investigate Lagana. He insults him, and is suspended, turning in his badge though not his gun, which he “bought and paid for” (The Big Heat). Bannion completes the transition to a rogue element, much like Beckhart in M and Joe in Fury. Indeed, comparison with Mabuse would be warranted, considering the fact that organized crime has taken over the forces of systemification.
His home is cleared out, a deadened space where one a tranquil family resided. Bannion is visited by his colleague, who tells him “no man’s an island, Dave” (The Big Heat). This again refers to Bannion and his quest, essentially, against the system. But, as Gunning notes in “Rogue Cop,” after the bombing “while Bannion does take the law into his own hands,” he “reacts mechanically… there is no scene that shows an emotional passion beneath this methodical behaviour… his obsession is remarkably unemotional and inexpressive” (733-34). Indeed, his newfound status as a rogue cop is not one marked by vengeful individualism, such as in the case of Joe, but rather by a machine-esque response to trauma.
An interesting aspect in the mise-en-scene can be seen when Bannion enters his home, and in the background a coat rack is shaped distinctly like a cross (conversely, at Stone’s apartment, a strange, phallic statue stands over him from a low-angle shot). In his office, a painting of his mother hangs over Lagana (The Big Heat). Gunning, in “Cop,” noted how the original novel included a “strong Catholic subtext,” which Lang (who co-wrote the screenplay) seems to have suppressed (737). It may be because Lang was more interested in exploring systemification than depicting a religious arc, but it could also have been a result of the Hays Code or studio concerns about alienating a large portion of the audience.
Bannion visits a junkyard, and in an extremely powerful tracking shot he walks alongside rows of hollowed-out cars, representing the innocents killed by Lagana but also the unintended victims of his self-righteous crusade. He interrogates the owner about one of his employees, standing in the middle of a space so empty it also feels deadened. The owner is uncooperative, looking out for his own family. However after he leaves Bannion is stopped by the bookkeeper Selma, who gives him the name of the bomber (The Big Heat).
Interestingly, their conversation is through a chain-link fence. A similar fence appears in Wilke’s office, in front of his window to the city (The Big Heat). The fact that it is transparent, yet still keeps people apart from one another, evokes the sense of how corruption may entraps people. Bannion tries to break down these barriers, to force out information from each corner of the city.
Bannion returns to the Retreat where he runs into Stone, interrupting a fight over a dice game; this peaks the curiosity of his girlfriend Debbie, who follows Bannion and convinces him to let him come to his room. After she returns to Stone’s apartment, he is outraged that she talked with Bannion, and throws coffee in her face (The Big Heat).
In this tense scene, Lang invokes another favorite motif, the mirror: while Stone is questioning her, she is looking into the mirror, adjusting her makeup. In a previous scene, she was looking at herself in another mirror, but from a certain distance, whereas here she is much closer. Lang attempts to depict her changing self-image in her relation to Stone, first by maintaining her appearance for his pleasure (in that earlier scene, Stone walked up and kissed her), whereas after returning from Bannion, she is standing next to him but does not look at him and brushes off his questions (The Big Heat). The fact that she is much closer to her own reflection shows that she is composing a sense of identity for herself, a sense of independence.
Stone is indeed a terrifying character. Whereas Dawson and Johnny were both slithering hoodlums, Stone is a blunt object, capable of being greatly seductive but even more ruthless towards his victims. This reflects the corruption, in that whereas the previous two existed on the fringes of society, Stone is the right-hand man of the city’s powerbroker, and therefore capable of inflicting greater pain.
Meanwhile, Bannion goes to the apartment of the bomber, Larry Jordan. After Selma identifies him, Bannion barges in and strangles him until he tells him about Bertha’s blackmail of Lagana. While he does not kill him, he informs Jordan that he’ll spread the news that he talked, essentially a death sentence (The Big Heat).
Bannion follows this by visiting Bertha. He confronts her about her late husband’s letter, but she is cocky, assuring him that she will live comfortably off of Lagana’s payments. However, Bannion puts her hands around her neck, almost strangling her, when a police car pulls up outside (dispatched by Lagana) and two cops enter (The Big Heat).
In these scenes, Lang both established strangulation, the cutting-off of air, as Bannion’s preferred method, as if reflecting his intention to cut off the corrupt air circulating through the city; and similarly, invoking the sound of a car outside the house reinforces systemification, in the way in which Lagana is able to dispatch patrolmen at will to any location. All the while, the fact that he does not actually kill either, but orchestrates Jordan’s death and sets his sight on Bertha, further establishes him as a destabilizing yet still mechanical element. Gunning aptly wrote in “Cashier,” “a machine out of whack is still a machine, perhaps even a more dire one” (551).
Later, Debbie returns to Bannion’s motel, half her face covered by a bandage. The sense of duality, as in the first mirror shot, is brought to a cynical conclusion here, as if something had been charred from her: she now can only see from one eye, the side independent from Stone. She hauntingly tells Bannion, “I’ll never be beautiful again” (The Big Heat). Gunning, in “The Big Heat Falls Alike on the Just and Unjust,” notes how “her ticket to the wealth she has enjoyed has been her beauty,” so “Vince’s violence displayed a calculated sadism” (749). Similarly, Selma told Bannion that “no one else would hire a woman like me” her, a disabled elderly woman (The Big Heat). Lang drew an effective intersection between sexism and ableism, society valuing only young, beautiful, vital women.
In both cases, Bannion takes advantage of these outcasted women. Not only did he use Selma to find Jordan, he tells Debbie about Bertha Duncan, subtly suggesting that if she were to die, Lagana and Stone would be destroyed. After getting a phone call from his brother-in-law, telling him the police detail left, Bannion runs out of the room but leaves a gun on the bed (The Big Heat).
Indeed, the following day Debbie goes to visit Bertha, both wearing identical mink coats, having similarly profited, “sisters under the mink.” Lang creates a mirror-image through a medium shot from the side, capturing them in front of one another. Before Bertha can call Lagana, Debbie shoots her and throws the gun on the floor (The Big Heat). The gun is clearly a phallic symbol, much like Chris’ knife, but here it is Debbie who used it, and by throwing it away after it completed its purpose, she reclaims a sort of power she lost to Stone.
Afterwards, at his apartment Debbie throws coffee into Stone’s face, and in a horrific shot takes off her bandaging, revealing her scars, the fate she has now returned in kind. Bannion barges in, getting into a brief gunfight with Stone, during which Debbie is hit. Bannion does not kill Stone, but at the same time does not express a transition from vengeful desire to law-abidingness, simply a logical decision not to execute a disarmed man (The Big Heat).
Bannion was similarly unemotional when “comforting” Debbie as she was dying. She wanted him to tell her about Katie, whom he gradually opens up about, specifically their intimacy (The Big Heat). The vision of a symbiotic, wholesome relationship gives her a sort of relief as she passes, as if dreaming of a life she could not have led (even more than what Joe and Katherine dreamed of). Even if she died having gotten revenge, society will still cast her a “B-girl” like Chapman.
In the film’s final shot, Bannion is back at the office when he is called to another crime scene (The Big Heat). Gunning, in “The Big Heat Falls,” said “Bannion’s mechanical routine does not visibly differ from his earlier behaviour… for an apocalypse, very little has changed” (753). Even if the person at the heart of the system has been dethroned, the system itself continues to exist. Before leaving, he says “keep this coffee hot, Hugo” (The Big Heat). The innocent will still be sacrificed for Bannion.
Lang led a life driven by controversy. His wife’s death and the subsequent investigation, the end of his relationship with Thea, his exile from Germany, his fights with actors and other collaborators. But even those who intensely disliked him still expressed admiration for his films, and looking at even only three of them one can unearth a style, and also an obsession: one with a system which judges, entraps, and destroys. He engaged with how people existed in such a system, driven to madness, but always submused by it. His style was often cold and distant, but nevertheless he was able to evoke the crushing weight of the worlds he depicted, even when constrained by the studio system. One can argue over whether his worldview was too pessimistic, but his films serve as a strong argument.