Big Heat in a Big Crowd

When New Yorkers want to go to the library, they don't go to that big white building with the lions sitting outside.

That building is part of the thing called "The New York Public Library", but its name is "the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building" and it doesn't actually function in how most people define "a library", as in, "the place you go to check out the tawdry escapism that you read in order to let yourself forget that New York City is an awful place".

If you want to see a Gutenberg Bible, or read the personal papers of Truman Capote, or do research on the history of the New York City sewer system, then that palatial intellectual white marble beauty is where you want to be.

But if you want to take home a stack of Agatha Christie paperbacks, or read the latest Jason Bourne novel, then you need to cross 5th Avenue and go one block south from those lions to NYPL's Mid-Manhattan branch. Five stories of bound paper, tucked into a utilitarian corner of just another ugly brick building covered in construction scaffolding.

While you're there, if you're lucky, if it's a hot Wednesday night in summer, they may be showing an old film noir as part of their "mystery summer" program. If they are, then you should go find a seat right now, because that big conference room fills up pretty quick. And not just with normal people. These are Library People. These are the kind of people who come early to a free showing of a poorly projected film noir in a mid-town conference room, carrying three to seven tote bags bursting to the seams with indeterminate contents.

It may not seem (or smell) like it, but this is the perfect crowd with which to watch The Big Heat, Fritz Lang's 1953 experiment in noir sadism, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Lee Marvin. Library People are usually older folks, outcasts, veterans of New York City, in touch with their emotions and fearless of other people. Some of them might have been in this audience when this film played originally at the Loews over on Broadway.

These are the people for whom Fritz Lang made this movie. He is speaking directly to them. I think that's why it happened the way that it did when I watched The Big Heat at the Mid-Manhattan. I'll never forget it.

It was about an hour in. We are careening towards the second act disaster. Gloria Grahame comes home to her gangster boyfriend Lee Marvin, who is playing poker with crooked cops and civic leaders on the dole. She's feeling cocky from her secret meeting with Glenn Ford, and she decides to really dig into Lee Marvin with all the spikes on her vicious gun moll tongue.

She puts on an absolute workshop in how dames ain't supposed to talk to big ugly mugs like Lee Marvin. After a while of trying to play it cool, he just can't take it anymore. She's been seeing Glenn Ford behind his back! A cop! Squealing to him and loving up to him for no other reason than to piss this gangster off.

Her arm is twisted. Then twisted farther. Then farther. She's shrieking desperate answers to his questions. He wants to know what's she's been doing. He means to torture her until she tells him what he wants to hear. A mild-mannered suit comes in to express his discomfort and gets shouted back for his trouble. And she still won't talk. Telling bullshit lies about being dropped off at the Gaiety Club.

"You pig! You lying pig!"

Lee Marvin's sweaty eyes dart around the room in a frenzy of frustrated bloodlust. His eyes, and the camera, land on a pot of coffee boiling on a hot plate.

And pandemonium breaks out at the Mid-Manhattan library.

A woman beside me screams. Men are shouting "No! No!". Faces are buried in hands as the inevitability of the situation descends upon us. I hear myself crying "Oh Christ! Oh Christ!", and my words join in with the cacophony of anticipated pain.

But we have only a second, brutally brief, to dread the inevitable. It stretches like taffy in our paroxysms of expectation.

We do not see Lee Marvin scald the face of Gloria Grahame. But we hear it, and we hear her screaming over and over and over, and we see the sick horror on the faces of the mild-mannered suits who rush in from the next room too late to do anything but be horrified. And we in the audience are horrified right along with them.

Our shouts and cries die down, and we remember we are watching a movie, and that a sequence like that, so raw and merciless in its telling, is a thing to be celebrated and marveled at. All around the conference room, horrified faces turn to tiny smiles of wonder, at this glorious film, and its effects on a roomful of freaks, as the sun sets behind the car horns and the walk lights blink in at us from the corner, disappointed that we cannot be distracted.

Nowadays, a life filled with film means a life of solitude and silicon. But there are still some places where movies are a team sport.


(Click to play from 58:59)

The Meaning of Cats

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