In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat opens with the suicide of a police officer—out of uniform, in his own study, for reasons that don’t become clear until later. From the opening credits, Lang dissolves to the image of a snub-nosed revolver on a desk, portending doom. Sure enough, a hand soon reaches for it, and as the camera pulls back slightly—carefully keeping whoever’s now holding the gun out of frame—a shot rings out, followed by a puff of smoke, and the policeman’s lifeless body falls forward onto the desk. As his wife runs down the stairs to see what happened, Lang cuts to a shot that slowly tracks toward the corpse from the opposite angle. However, apart from the gun in his hand and the previously heard shot, there’s nothing to indicate that a bullet just entered his head, or even his chest. No blood is visible anywhere, and the cop looks roughly as he would had he just gotten tired while working and taken a nap at his desk.
Audiences of the 1950s weren’t stupid. They knew perfectly well what happens when someone gets shot, even if few people back then had seen the graphic representations we’re all accustomed to today. Bloodless gunshot wounds were a convention of the era, accepted by viewers in the same way that a theater audience still accepts them now (though, for all I know, onstage squibs are now commonplace). Violence could be largely implied. That’s doubly true of The Big Heat’s most famous scene, in which gangster Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), angry at his girlfriend, Debby (Gloria Grahame) for flirting with another cop and lying to him about it, impulsively throws boiling-hot coffee onto her face, scalding her horribly. Not having seen the film for almost 20 years, I remembered nothing about it apart from this moment, and had constructed a false memory of Stone flinging the contents of the coffeepot at Debby as she tries to shield herself. In truth, the brutal act happens entirely offscreen. Here’s how it plays out:
Quick context for those who haven’t seen the film (or haven’t seen it in a long time): The “Bannion” referred to is the film’s hero, Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), who’d confronted Vince at an earlier scene in a nightclub called The Retreat. Vince, not prepared to make waves in public, beat a hasty retreat himself, which is what Debby is needling him for toward the beginning of this scene. She then went after Bannion, and was seen accompanying him to his hotel room by one of Vince’s stooges (though he rejects her advances). So the moment she comes in and says she was at the Gaiety Club, Vince knows she’s lying. Both characters are playacting, with Debby improvising lies about her evening—Grahame nicely registers the slight hesitation required to come up with a plausible answer to one question—and Vince flashing a big fake smile, temporarily pretending to be unaware that she’s feeding him bullshit. All the same, the tension in the air is almost visible, and it’s clearly only a matter of seconds before things turn ugly.
When they do, though, Lang feels no need to show it. Odds are he was restricted by the Hays Code, which was still in effect at the time (though the first movie to openly defy it, Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue, was released that same year) and dictated that “special care be exercised” with respect to “brutality and possible gruesomeness.” The coffee incident certainly qualifies on both counts. The thing is, though, the act itself doesn’t really need to be shown. The idea is plenty horrifying all by itself, and Lang ups the ante by suddenly cranking the sound of the boiling coffee just as said idea occurs to Vince, who’s flailing around for a weapon he can use. (Whatever happened to just hitting someone?) Grahame does the rest with her scream, and her subsequent collapse onto the poker table. In later scenes, the left side of her face will be bandaged, but we’re eventually given a clear look at the scarred tissue (which isn’t very realistic by today’s makeup standards, but would likely have looked sufficiently horrific at the time), so it’s not as if Lang was averse to showing carnage. But show Debby actually being scalded? Not in 1953.
Granted, contemporary filmmakers sometimes employ a similar strategy. The notorious ear-slicing in Reservoir Dogs, for example, happens mostly offscreen, with Quentin Tarantino panning the camera away to stare at an unremarkable corner of the warehouse while Mr. Blonde does the deed. That doesn’t feel quite the same, though. For one thing, Tarantino spends quite a while stoking the viewer’s dread (or bloodlust, depending on the viewer), showing Mr. Blonde dancing around with the straight razor and giving us plenty of time to wonder what he might do with it. In The Big Heat, there’s barely time to register that Vince has grabbed the coffeepot before we can hear that its contents have been dumped onto Debby. There’s a formal distinction as well, in that Tarantino pans away from the violence, whereas Lang holds the camera steady while the perpetrator steps out of frame, simply refusing to follow. Lang’s decision feels circumspect; Tarantino’s feels coy. That’s not a knock on Reservoir Dogs (a film I love even more than The Big Heat), by any means—just an observation. Looking away means something different than it used to.
If a contemporary filmmaker depicted a suicide by gunshot in which the victim doesn’t so much as muss his hair, much less bleed, audiences would surely balk (unless it were somehow contextually appropriate, as in a postmodern reinterpretation of classic Hollywood—something like Far From Heaven, say). That convention is utterly dead. I wonder, though, what would happen if someone precisely replicated what Lang does with the coffeepot scene—not an ostentatious let’s-pan-over-here-for-a-moment, but just a simple, unremarkable nope-not-going-there-use-your-imagination shot. Would it be jarring? Do we now feel like we’re somehow being cheated if we’re denied a view of something significant? Even if directors were sensitive enough not to want to show coffee burning a human face, it seems like they would find a different way to avoid it—maybe by blocking the scene so that the victim’s face is hidden behind the perp (you just see his arm pouring), or maybe by just skipping the scene altogether and revealing what happened in later dialogue. Holding the shot on the empty burner, as Lang does, just wouldn’t seem a viable option. It’s old-fashioned in a way that might invite ridicule from those who’ve witnessed every sort of fictional atrocity. That it’s arguably more effective doesn’t matter. So is black-and-white cinematography. So is celluloid.