I've seen the famous still from the early 1950s film noir THE BIG HEAT at least a hundred times or more over the years. It shows Gloria Grahame after Lee Marvin's character has scalded her face with boiling hot coffee. It's a pretty famous image and for years I was sure I had seen the movie it came from.
But watching the film last night on TCM (with the usual great introductory and closing commentary from host Robert Osborne), only one or two scenes seemed familiar. Others seemed vaguely familiar, until I realized I was thinking of another film noir flick from that period that just had a similar set up or outcome or even in some cases action and even dialogue.
THE BIG HEAT stars Glen Ford as a cop who temporarily loses his job and goes all vigilante (a trope of film noir and Westerns and other genre films during the McCarthy era as the idea of corrupt or compromised government entities needing to be straightened out by lone heroes who take the law into their own hands and carry out vengeance for the rest of us etc. became the metaphor used by both sides of that political turmoil though mostly by the right) after his wife is killed.
There's a lot of the above mentioned set pieces—the gangland moll who at heart is if not virtuous at least well intentioned (but by the movie code of that era has to die for her sins in the last reel), the overly flashy apprentice gangster who is the first prominent bad guy to get his just deserts, etc., even the "crippled" elderly woman who is the only one brave enough to rat on the bad guys, etc.—but the film is also full of original touches and performances that gave it the reputation it has as one of the classic film noirs.
And a lot of the credit for that has to go to Gloria Grahame. Her gangland boyfriend and the main evildoer played by Lee Marvin gives her a foil to play off, but it's Ford who she really works out with. It almost seems like Grahame's trying to get Ford, a relatively rigid actor whose persona was fairly consistent through most of his film work, attractive and interesting to watch, but limited, it's like she's trying to rile the actor himself and not just her character trying to get to Ford's.
In fact the sparks they created generated so much heat, so to speak, that according to host Robert Osborne, the studio cast them immediately in another film with the same director (Fritz Lang) but that one bombed and we had no more of Grahame and Ford. Though Gramahe went on to work with other stars, or had already (her bit part in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE being a perfect example of the impact she had on screen, I bet anyone who ever saw that movie can remember her being complimented on her dress as she walks down the street having prepared assiduously for the impact the dress would make and then charmingly waving off the compliment by referring to the dress, as she swirls the skirt of it around her beautiful legs, saying something like "This old thing?" or her turn as "I'm just a girl who cain't say no" in Oklahoma etc.) she never attained the level of Hollywood legend I always thought she deserved.
Her screen presence is always memorable, at least to me as a kid and an adult, because of her confidence and the light touch it gave her every line reading and every expression. She seems, for instance, in THE BIG HEAT, almost in another movie compared to Lee Marvin's bad guy heaviness. In fact, the best thing about this movie is watching Gloria Grahame. I hope her contribution to classic Hollywood films of the 1940s and '50s is never forgotten.
And just for full disclosure, I had the honor and privilege of working with her in the last movie she made, in which she had a small part and I was one of the leads (and in which John Carradine played my character's grandfather, a low budget horror film originally called PHOBIA but retitled THE NESTING). I actually got to hold her hand (and unwisely told her how much that meant to me while we were waiting for the director to yell "Action" and she was preparing which made her peeved with me but it was only my second professional movie acting job and I didn't have enough experience to respect another actor's methods etc.).
She became more notorious in some circles for being first married to Nicolas Ray the director of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE among other films, and then after he died, marrying his son (her stepson, shades of Woody Allen or Phedre!). She died on a plane ride over the Atlantic (I don't remember if she was going or coming) not long after I held her hand on that movie set. And now she seems almost forgotten. But to me, long before I ever met her, she was always one of the most unforgettable screen presences Hollywood ever presented to a movie audience—every scene she was ever in is captivating to watch, unlike even some of the most famous Hollywood legends, which she will always be for me.