The film is about a cop who takes on the crime syndicate that controls his city after the brutal murder of his beloved wife. The film was written by former crime reporter Sydney Boehm based on a serial by William P. McGivern which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, and was published as a novel in 1952.
The New York Times and Variety both gave The Big Heat very positive reviews. Bosley Crowther of the Times described Glenn Ford "as its taut, relentless star" and praises Lang for bringing "forth a hot one with a sting." Variety characterized Lang's direction as "tense" and "forceful." Today, The Big Heat is considered a classic: critic Roger Ebert lists the film among his category of "Great Movies"; he praises the film's supporting actors.
Writer David M. Meyer states that the film never overcomes the basic repugnance of its hero, but notes that some parts of the film, though violent, are better than the film as a whole. "Best known is Gloria Grahame's disfigurement at the hands of über-thug Lee Marvin, who flings hot coffee into her face."
According to film critic Grant Tracey, the film turns the role of the femme fatale on its head: "Whereas many noirs contain the tradition of the femme-fatale, the deadly spiderwoman who destroys her man and his family and career, The Big Heat inverts this narrative paradigm, making Ford the indirect agent of fatal destruction. All four women he meets—from clip joint singer, Lucy Chapman to gun moll Debby—are destroyed.
- Glenn Ford: Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion
- Gloria Grahame: Debby Marsh
- Lee Marvin: Vince Stone
- Jeanette Nolan: Bertha Duncan
- Alexander Scourby: Mike Lagana
- Jocelyn Brando: Katie Bannion
- Adam Williams: Larry, the car bomber
- Kathryn Eames: Bannion's sister-in-law
- Chris Alcaide: George Rose
- Peter Whitney: Tierney
- Willis Bouchey: Lt. Ted Wilks
- Robert Burton: Det. Gus Burke
- Howard Wendell: Police Commissioner Higgins
- Michael Granger: Hugo (police clerk)
- Dorothy Green: Lucy Chapman
- Carolyn Jones: Doris
- Ric Roman: Baldy
- Dan Seymour: Mr. Atkins
- Edith Evanson: Selma Parker