The Big Heat, USA, 1953, Director Fritz Lang

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Believe me, leaving the LAPD and joining the FBI was the best thing I ever did.  I was lucky.  I knew someone, and he told me about the kind of men they were looking for and what I had to say.  You know the kind of thing.  Back then in ‘53 the LAPD were a rough crowd.  Dave Bannion was rough as well.  Okay the guy knew how to put his body on the line and he could throw and take a punch.  But Bannion was always different, which was why maybe nobody called him Dave.  Bannion had this idea he was the only straight copper on the force.  This was not true.  In Kenport District we had this guy called Cranston. and he was straight as the lines they were always telling us not to cross.  The same guy, though, got by without throwing punches.  Bannion was too ready with his fists.


If the LAPD had its faults, its training academy was always the best in the country.  I was unusual.  I listened to my trainers.  One thing more than any stuck.  I took it with me to the FBI and even quoted it to my recruitment board.  The line between being a saviour and avenger is very, very thin, I was told, so it’s best to forget about being a hero and just do the job the best you can.   Not sure if Bannion qualified as a saviour, look what happened to the women around him, but he certainly knew how to avenge.  I once saw him reading this book by Mickey Spillane, something called ‘I The Jury’.  Back then everybody read Spillane.  God, back then people even used to read.  Bannion didn’t buy the book.  ‘I The Jury’ went around all the men in the District.  The difference was that the rest of us read the book because everyone else was reading it.  We all wanted to get to the ending that was supposed to be a humdinger.  Bannion was the last to have the book.  That tells you something about how popular the guy was.  I remember him reading it and drinking the coffee that yours truly had made him.  He read this cheap paperback like it was the Bible or something.

Bannion was a Detective Sergeant, and didn’t we know it.  He had this big nameplate at the front of his desk and he thought being a detective and sergeant and all gave him the right for having someone make and bring his coffee.  In his case the someone was me.  He called me Hugo.  You get it?  You go for the coffee.  I didn’t like that.  In the FBI I worked my way through the ranks but I always made my own coffee.  Hugo, damn, in the end no one was calling me by my right name.


No, no one was surprised that Bannion never made lieutenant.  Those days the promotions were decided on the basis of the top three in these written exams that LAPD had for every promotion.  Bannion was not the exam type.  The guy didn’t like any kind of examination from anyone.   Bannion was given a lot of slack on account his wife was blown up inside their motor.  People said all that changed Bannion but I saw no difference.   The guy was always handy with his fists.  Cleaning out the Laguna gang gave him respect but even without the exam system I reckon he’d have stayed a sergeant.  Even in his finest moments Bannion was making mistakes.  He said it was nothing to do with him but the guy had civilians protecting his daughter so that the hoods couldn’t get their hands on her.  Sorry but you don’t involve civilians in police business.  I don’t care what’s happening.  Bannion even roughed up Tom Duncan’s wife.  True, the woman was crooked and in league with Laguna but she was still married to a cop.

And if Bannion did send Laguna to the can, he wouldn’t have done it without Debbie Marsh.  Tom Duncan was not just a crooked cop.  He thought like one.  Mrs Duncan was cute and held on to the dirt her husband had collected on Laguna.  She kept it inside her safe and to be opened on her death.  So Debbie Marsh plugs Mrs Duncan.  Laguna would never have killed the Duncan woman because she had him nailed but Debbie, well, she didn’t give a damn, not after her man had thrown a load of percolated coffee in her face.

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Her boyfriend Vince Stone was a real stinker.  He liked to put out cigarettes on women and when he really lost his temper he threw the coffee over Debbie.  After that she ran to Bannion for help.  He lent her the gun and hid her in a hotel but Debbie was on a mission.  First, she takes the gun and blasts Mrs Duncan.  Then she goes back home to Vince and this time she’s throwing the coffee.  Bannion arrived soon after but it was too late to stop Vince Stone firing two bullets in the belly of his girl Debbie.  Bannion was given a medal for what happened next.  He killed Stone in a shootout, and after the dirt in the safe of Mr and Mrs Duncan was found Laguna was tried and convicted.

Laguna said he was not a rough guy and he certainly didn’t talk like a hood.  His friends, and he had a few in LAPD, claimed he had a weakness.  Laguna liked his henchmen to have wide shoulders and movie profiles.  He was married and had a daughter but he had his other side.  I don’t have to spell it.  Vince Stone wasn’t as pretty as the rest, so I’m not sure what happened there, but he created more havoc than anyone.  Having guys on your side that like to torture people is not a good idea.  Laguna learnt the hard way.

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People think Debbie reacted to living with this creep Stone, as anyone would, but I heard a tale.  When she was younger, Debbie knocked around with Elizabeth Short, the dead babe they found in ’47.  Short was chopped in two, and her killer split her face from side to side.  The Press loved it because it was gruesome.  They called it the Black Dahlia murder.  Vince Stone would have tested the patience of anyone but knowing what happened to Short affected Debbie, I reckon.   After her pal was killed, Debbie liked to land the first punch, so to speak.  And the girl was amenable to a drop of the hard stuff.  That doesn’t help.  Neither did meeting Bannion help the poor kid even if he did mean well.

The women liked Bannion if the men didn’t.  But none of them ever lasted, and we all know what happened to his wife.  She wasn’t the first.  Some barroom girl was having this fling with Tom Duncan and told Bannion that there was no way that her dreamboat had committed suicide.  She was the one found dead in an alley after Stone had tortured her with cigarette burns.   No one grieved over deadbeat Mrs Duncan but, of course, she kicked the bucket as well, thanks to little and soon dead Debbie.  No, the women around Bannion didn’t last long.

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There was an exception, and this is what I want to talk about because, well, the Laguna business was a long time ago.  This is what is odd.  Guess what happens to Bannion.  Well he goes no further than sergeant in LAPD, so what does he go and do?  He only joins the FBI.  He was always red, white and blue, and the FBI would have loved that.  We didn’t work together, thank God.  He was based in the Las Vegas Unit.   Bannion was impressed by what he saw in Vegas, the swanky hotels, the big acts and the freebies.  I know all this because I met him this one time.  He was older, and I remember he didn’t have a grey hair in his head and he had all of it.  We were both at some FBI conference in Kansas City.  He kept talking about how great Vegas was and these days he wondered whether there was a price for progress whether you liked it or not.  The truth is that since the mob moved out Vegas is not what it used to be.  Say what you like about the hoods and them skimming from the casino rooms and everything but those guys understood customer service. They used to dish out freebies to the customers better than anyone.  Providing you gambled you could get anything free, food, drink and for the high rollers even women.


Bannion didn’t  say the hoods were a mixed blessing but he’d changed.  He just didn’t sound like the Bannion I remembered.  I knew he was different because he poured me a coffee.  Much later I mentioned my meeting with Bannion to someone from the old LAPD.  He told me that Bannion had hooked up with some showgirl that was really built and that before Bannion she knew people in the mob.  Maybe that was the reason Bannion had to watch his step said this guy.  Maybe so but I definitely had the impression that Bannion had mellowed.   People were different after the war.  Not just Bannion wanted a better world then.  When we got cash back in our pockets, we all changed, maybe for the worse.  The dame with the build had a bad car accident but the FBI people in Vegas believed it was rigged.  The dame survived but the fabulous build and a lot more suffered.  Bannion stayed with her until the end I heard.  I don’t have no details.  I remember him, though.  I don’t dispute that.  I wonder what ever happened to his daughter.   She meant the world to him.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.   His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.