Joseph H. Lewis, 1955
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace
Lt. Diamond is determined to bring down a local gangster, Mr. Brown, though no one else at the police department believes this is possible. Diamond becomes obsessed with Brown’s melancholic, suicidal girlfriend, a blonde beauty named Susan who is followed everywhere by two of Brown’s murderous henchmen, Fante and Mingo. When Susan tries to kill herself and mutters “Alicia” in half-consciousness, Diamond becomes convinced that this is his only lead, a clue to the identity of a woman from Brown’s past. Tired of Diamond’s meddling, he has the man tortured by Fante and Mingo, though Diamond learns that Alicia was Brown’s wife and she is suspiciously missing. As Diamond gets closer to the truth, he figures out that only Susan and Alicia – the women in Brown’s life – could dig up enough evidence to put him away permanently.
Director Joseph Lewis’s The Big Combo is one of the finest, if somewhat underrated noir efforts. Also responsible for Bonnie and Clyde-precursor, Gun Crazy, and the pleasantly surprising thriller, My Name is Julia Ross, Lewis had a varied career that included westerns (Gunsmoke) and horror films (The Invisible Ghost with Bela Lugosi), though he never rose above B-films. His work is certainly worth exploring and The Big Combo is perhaps the best of these films, thanks to two excellent contributions. Cinematographer John Alton (He Walked by Night) bathed the film in shadow and was responsible for one of the most iconic scenes in noir (as seen above), while composer David Raksin (Laura, Force of Evil) provided a jazzy, if somber score.
Though it was made relatively late in the game, the film explodes with subversive sexuality and violence. Mr. Brown is undeniably a seducer, and women are ultimately his weakness. His first wife, Alicia, left him for another, more powerful man. This sexual frustration was the boost Brown needed to reach his full power; he then murdered the rival gangster, dumped his body in the ocean, and took charge, while Alicia went into hiding. Susan, his suicidal girlfriend, both loves and hates Brown and presumably stays with him equally due to fear and attraction. There’s a scene where it is implied that he gives Susan oral sex and that this is why she stays and has put up with years of torment; it’s amazing that this made it past the censors.
Mr. Brown is also undeniably cruel and sadistic. In a jarring scene, he tortures Diamond by tying the inspector down, inserting a hearing aid into his ear, and blasting jazz music at painful, deafening volumes. He later forces Diamond to drink alcohol, leaving him somewhere drunk and humiliated (this is also a popular tactic in Raymond Chandler’s novels). Brown’s two henchmen, a young Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) as Fante and Earl Holliman (Forbidden Planet) as his partner Mingo, are equally attracted to violence and do not shrink at assignments to beat or murder. There’s been some more recent critical speculation that the two men are perhaps gay lovers, as they are never apart and even sleep in the same room. I think this is perhaps simplifying or dumbing down their relationship, as Fante and Mingo seem attracted to violence, rather than sex, and this is the basis of their unshakable bond.
My only issue with The Big Combo is in its casting, particularly the two leading performances from Cornel Wilde (Leave Her to Heaven) as Diamond and Richard Conte (Whirlpool, Cry of the City) as Mr. Brown. Wilde, a sort of bland Every Man, is just not charismatic to command the film. Diamond is an afterthought compared to characters like Brown, the excellent Jean Wallace (Wilde’s then-wife) as Susan, or even Helen Walker (Nightmare Alley) as Alicia, to say nothing of Fante and Mingo. And though Richard Conte is near perfect as Mr. Brown, I’ve always disliked the actor – he pretty much ruined Thieves’ Highway for me – and I can’t think of him as anything but a smarmier Frank Sinatra spin-off.
Aside from those minor complaints, The Big Combo comes highly recommended and is available on Blu-ray. The fast-paced script, surprising levels of sex and violence, mystery, and suspense make this one of the greats and it is certainly a contender for best noir dialogue of the ‘50s.Noir fans will want to keep an eye out for noir veteran Brian Donlevy (Kiss of Death, Hangmen Also Die, The Glass Key) as an aged toughie, a former boss defeated and effectively neutered by Brown.