The plot is a bit convoluted, and I'd rather make a short post and save you the plot summary. Basically, the main character of the film, Bannion, is a good cop in a town full of bad people. He is so driven in his pursuits, however, that he doesn't seem to notice how his actions affect others. He rushes headlong into all situations, and seems clueless about what his actions mean for other people. He endangers people around him, and doesn't seem to realize that. Even after his wife dies because of him, he continues on his path, not seeming to link her death with is doings.
I like this movie so much because the plot is so unique. Usually there is something sort of vaguely good or at least some forced-in moral in film noir. Maybe the main character is an anti-hero, but we can respect what he is doing. This movie feels much darker. It's hard to support Bannion's actions when it seems like he's just leaving a huge amount of dead in his wake. He's doing good, but the cost is so great! While other noirs may blatantly take place in the seedy underworld, this film seems to expose one that we didn't know existed.
Ebert writes on the interesting plot as well, saying, "The film is as deceptive and two-faced as anything Lang ever made, with its sunny domestic tranquility precariously separated from a world of violence. Bannion thinks he can draw a line between his loving wife and adorable child, and the villains he deals with at work. But he invites evil into the lives of his wife and two other women by his self-righteous heroism. Does it ever occur to him that he is at least partly responsible for their deaths? No, apparently it doesn't, and that's one reason the film is so insidiously chilling; he continues on his mission oblivious to its cost. Oh, he's right, of course, that Lagana and Stone are vermin. But tell that to the women he obliviously sends into harm's way" (Great Movies II, 54-56).
Like many detectives in movies, he thinks that he can keep his work life and home life separate, but of course, they mix. I think the movie gets such a disturbing note because he doesn't ever realize this. It's one thing to have our main character acknowledge that his work has affected his family (I guess an obvious example is Se7en), but it's strange and unsettling that Bannion cannot see this. What sort of person is he, anyway?
I really love Fritz Lang. He seemed to be a director of many talents, who made many iconic and memorable films. He had a great eye for details, seemed to segue perfectly from the era of silent pictures to talkies. I love him for not ever being afraid to show weird or disturbing things, be it in his noirs or his silent films. I really think this is a great movie to check out, especially if you are like me and love movies like this. Let me know if you rent it!
I have serious hand cramps from doing so many job applications today, so I'm going to cut this a bit short so I can relax and give my hands a must-needed rest from the keyboard. :)
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Big Heat