Torture, sex, lust, desire, murder, crime; all par for the course of the classic, classy film noir, readily on display in Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955); a steamy, sin-laden, B-grade detective melodrama given to A-list perfection by Lewis’ light-handed direction, a competent screenplay from Philip Yordan that moves like gangbusters, and, cinematographer, John Alton’s iconic visual flair. The Big Combo is a vintage textbook of style trumping substance. It delivers a one-two punch as a penetrating noir thriller, not so much because all the pieces fit so neatly together – in point of fact, some elements of the plot never do – but rather because the central performances rise to a level well beyond mere competency.
Fifties congenial beefcake, Cornel Wilde reinvents his trademarked muscle-flexing cock-of-the-walk, grinning from ear to ear, herein recast as Police Lt. Leonard Diamond; a careworn, dower, honest cop (not unlike Dana Andrews’ jaded Mark McPherson in Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944) who goes after a seemingly unconquerable mafia kingpin; the autonomous ‘Mr. Brown’ played with cynical perfection by a glib and gloating Richard Conte. Wilde’s good, though arguably not great. Bogart or even Dick Powell could have done more with this role. It’s nevertheless fascinating to watch Wilde step outside his comfort zone, passing off the one shirtless moment in the film to – of all people – Lee Van Cleef, playing one half of Brown’s stooge squad, Fante; the other fifty percent – Mingo – fleshed out with convincing sycophantic devotion by Earl Holliman.
Wilde is at his most substantial when he abandons this carefully crafted persona; as when his heavy-lidded, droopy eyes well up with fresh tears after learning his partner, Det. Sam Hill (Jay Adler) has taken a couple of slugs meant for him. Wilde isn’t a great actor, though he gets an A+ herein for doing his damnedest to make us forget his appeal in the movies is mostly centralized from the neck down to his belt buckle; biceps and magnificent torso on display. And Wilde does achieve an alternate reality to this He-man image crafted for him in movies like At Sword’s Point and The Greatest Show On Earth…sort of. But the deflated ‘tough guy’ act doesn’t really suit Wilde, who was always better in movies where his own ego was allowed to ride shotgun.
Richard Conte’s Mafioso with the mysterious moniker ‘Mr. Brown’ is all about ego – and well-tailored suits. Conte gives us a bone-chilling read on this malignant overlord, never splenetic on the surface; his sadism all the more unsettling because he somehow manages to convey a blank slate onto which most any evil can be grafted. The sequence where Mr. Brown inserts a hearing aid borrowed from his stoolie, Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) into Diamond’s ear, then cranks up its reception while proportionately adjusting the volume on a radio to deafen the detective, is played with an absence of pleasure. Brown is impervious to almost every emotion. Even his love-making scenes with suicidal plaything, Susan Lowell (the rather tepid, Jean Wallace) are exercises in bloodless conquest. Conte’s puppet master is therefore something of a shark; neither sneering nor venomous, thereby amplifying the real danger he emits. The Big Combo belongs to Conte and he devours its scenery even as he elevates the material above some fairly pedestrian plot entanglements.
The one unforgivable sin committed in The Big Combo is its absence of a bona fide femme fatale; a main staple in just about every noir thriller. Jean Wallace’s platinum vixen isn’t evil or even all bad. In fact, Susan repeatedly tries to escape her hopeless situation – as much Brown’s victim as Diamond’s fair-weather gal pal, Rita (Helene Stanton); first, by running away from Fante and Mingo, then later, consuming a bottle of pills in a botched suicide attempt, and finally, by turning on Conte’s rat, made frantic and trapped inside a foggy warehouse during the movie’s penultimate showdown between Mr. Brown and Diamond. Diamond has his own romantic woes; having inexplicably fallen for Susan while courting the whisky-voiced seemingly ‘bad girl’ stripper – Rita, who just happens to harbor a soft spot in that proverbial heart of gold. She pays the ultimate price for her loyalty to Diamond. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
From the beginning, Philip Yordan’s screenplay plunges the audience into peril. After some overhead shots of New York at dusk, seen under the opening credits and brilliantly married to David Raksin’s jazzy rifts of an underscore, The Big Combo wastes no time zeroing in on some moodily magnificent, chiaroscuro-lit shots of Susan Lowell fleeing Fante and Mingo. With her blonde tresses backlit like an angel’s halo, Sue races for her life through the brooding back allies and dimly lit bowels of a stadium on fight night. But in her high-heeled shoes and gossamer-threaded black strapless evening gown she is unable to escape her pursuers. Sue should know better. She’s tried this route before and it’s no use. She belongs to Mr. Brown; bought and paid for, owing her pretty little neck, as well as the earrings that drip from those shell-like ears, to the city’s most notorious underworld kingpin.
We move ahead to the police precinct where Lt. Leonard Diamond is in a heated tête-à-tête with his superior, Capt. Peterson (Robert Middleton). Diamond’s spent far too much of the city’s budget and time pursuing Mr. Brown. It’s gone beyond mere duty as an honest cop. In fact, it’s become a personal obsession, one predicated as much on Diamond’s desire to have Brown locked up as it is on his own fixation with Susan – the poison he just can’t get out of his heart or mind. Diamond is convinced that if he can turn Sue against Brown he can get everything he wants; certainly a lot more satisfying than his meager pension and gold wrist watch at retirement. But Brown’s organization is tighter in its security than Fort Knox. No one’s talking, either out of loyalty or fear. What’s a forthright guy like Diamond to do? Well, perhaps wait and bide his time.
As it turns out Diamond won’t have very long to wait. For Fante and Mingo, unable to convince Susan to return to Mr. Brown’s side at the fights, instead decide to humor her request to go out for dinner at one of the more fashionable restaurants. There Susan meets an old friend from her past who she encourages to take a spin around the dance floor, suddenly becoming ill and confiding she has swallowed an entire bottle of pills. Rushed to the hospital to save her life, Susan is placed under police surveillance by Diamond. It’s exactly the moment he’s been waiting for. Brown threatens Diamond and vice versa. However, as a semiconscious Sue is wheeled away on a stretcher she manages to mutter the name ‘Alicia’; raising Diamond’s apprehensive curiosity and Brown’s ire respectively. Diamond now pours all of his time and energies into locating this mysterious woman from Brown’s past.
Diamond also manages to locate a former associate of Brown’s, Audubon (Roy Gordon) who is in hiding and in constant fear for his life. Their conversation reveals few clues, but it’s enough for Brown to send his second-in-command, McClure and Fante and Mingo to kidnap Diamond for questioning. Diamond is beaten in the back alley behind Rita’s burlesque theater, before being taken to an underground safe house where Brown tortures him for answers. Diamond says nothing and Brown forces a bottle of alcohol-based hair tonic down his throat, leaving Diamond severely inebriated and hallucinating. Diamond stumbles to Capt. Peterson’s apartment, collapsing in the hallway. After sobering up, Diamond relays his ordeal to his superior. As a result, Peterson decides to back up Diamond’s investigation of Alicia.
Diamond recalls Audubon told him Alicia was Brown’s wife; presumably exiled by Brown to Sicily where she has since become the kept woman of another elusive, and even more powerful mob boss, Grazzi. The rumor is that Alicia was murdered off the coast of Sicily, then tied to the anchor of Grazzi’s yacht and left on the ocean floor to be eaten by the fishes. In short order, Diamond tracks down the former skipper of Grazzi’s vessel; a Swede named Nils Dreyer (John Hoyt) who now operates a rather lucrative ‘legitimate’ antiques business – actually, a front bought and paid for with Brown’s money. Or is it to secure Dreyer’s silence in Alicia’s murder? Diamond gets nowhere with his interrogation of Dreyer who is cordial and facetious to a fault. Nevertheless, Brown isn’t taking any chances. A short while later Dreyer is murdered by McClure, despite orders to the contrary given by Brown.
Brown confronts McClure, accusing him of betrayal. Despite McClure’s protestations - that he acted in Brown’s best interest by eliminating Dreyer, and, that he has neither the skill nor the stomach to run a crime syndicate - Brown instinctively knows McClure believes he was shafted by Grazzi when Brown was appointed the de facto godfather of the New York operations. In one of The Big Combo’s most pensive moments, Brown asks McClure for his gun – the same one he used to murder Dreyer; McClure slowly removing it from his coat pocket and momentarily pointing the loaded weapon at Brown before, in fact, handing it over to him. Brown then tells McClure the reason he can never been a ‘big man’ in the ‘combo’ is because he utterly lacks the guts to rise to the top by eliminating the top guy – him. For several moments, it looks as though Brown will murder McClure to prove his point. Instead, he lets McClure live with the humiliation he is a very weak man.
But Diamond is getting much too close to a truth that could ruin Brown. So, Brown orders Fante and Mingo to air out Diamond’s apartment and put a definite period to his problem. Alas, Brown isn’t home when the pair arrives with their machine guns blazing, riddling the door with bullets and killing Rita instead, who has been waiting for Diamond’s return on the other side. Realizing he is partly responsible for Rita’s death, Diamond redoubles his efforts to make Brown’s life as uncomfortable as possible. Sometime later, Brown reveals to Susan a concealed vault he’s had installed behind the closet in her apartment where he keeps a considerable stash of money and a small arsenal of weaponry. She confronts him about Alicia and Brown finally confesses that Alicia is his wife.
In the meantime, Diamond discovers a more up-to-date photo of Alicia in Audubon’s apartment, presumably taken in Sicily. However, magnifying the image reveals it was taken not far outside of New York. Diamond now fits the pieces together; convinced Alicia is still very much alive and that Brown actually murdered Grazzi to take over the New York operations in his stead. Diamond tracks down Alicia (Helen Walker) who has been kept in a sanitarium under another name and asks for her help. McClure decides the time is right for an ambush; plotting with Fante and Mingo who he believes can be easily swayed to murder their boss with the promise of money. But McClure has underestimated the pair’s loyalty to Brown. After pulling off the initial confrontation and revealing his true stripes, McClure is gunned down by Fante and Mingo as Brown casually looks on.
Diamond whisks Alicia away to police headquarters, intent on having her testify against Brown. But Brown is once again two steps ahead of the game, showing up with a writ of habeas corpus to prevent her. After McClure’s body is discovered, Diamond goes on a manhunt for Fante and Mingo. Tying up loose ends, Brown arrives with a large box at the secret safe house where the pair is hiding out. Presumably, the box is filled with cash for their escape to parts unknown. Pretending he is grateful for their devotion to him, Brown instructs Fante and Mingo to divvy up the cash after he has gone. But when Fante opens the box he discovers it is booby-trapped with dynamite. The bomb explodes killing Fante and mortally wounding Mingo. As he is about to die, Mingo confesses to Diamond that Brown is responsible for all the murders and Diamond puts out an APB for Brown’s arrest.
As Susan is under house arrest, Brown arrives at her apartment packing heat, shooting Sam several times in the stomach and kidnapping her for his planned escape. Alicia helps Diamond figure out where Brown is most likely to take Susan; to a private airport where Brown has already ordered his getaway plane. Only the flight has been delayed due to a dense fog bank rolling in. Brown now finds he is cornered inside the airplane hangar; involved in a shootout, ending only after Susan shines the squad car’s search lamp on Brown.
The finale, with Susan and Diamond dematerializing into the fog as they exit the hangar is considered an iconic moment in the history of noir thrillers. Yet, The Big Combo is a movie rich in vintage noir lore; superbly crafted in its middle and last acts to yield big dividends in stylish suspense. Philip Yordan’s screenplay may meander at the start – in point of fact, the first few scenes in The Big Combo are rather clumsily strung together. But once the plot crystalizes and the characters become ensconced as archetypes of the noir movement, the movie takes off with jet-propulsion in mostly unpredictable twists and turns.
Again, the real star of the piece is Richard Conte. There is nothing quite as menacing as a man who doesn’t have to advertise how powerful he is. Conte’s Brown is a powerhouse without moving a muscle; his slight intonations, the way he quietly modulates his silken voice through some lengthy speeches Phil Yordan’s screenplay affords the character, takes on a threatening underlay far more foreboding than any overt body language could suggest. Quite simply; Conte steals the show.
It’s therefore somewhat disconcerting, and more than a tad disheartening, to observe as all this bravura evaporates during the movie’s penultimate showdown; Yordan’s tacked on ‘crime doesn’t pay’ scenario true to the precepts of the detective/crime story genre, yet somehow at odds with all that has gone before it. If The Big Combo were remade today, I have no doubt the ending would go along the lines of Brown escapes. Susan dies at Brown’s hand, but in Diamond’s arms, thereby forcing him to relive the regret and personal angst that nearly consumed him after Rita’s murder. Ultimately, the good girl – turned bad – but redeemed at the last possible moment by a man who shakes her loose from her own complacent spiral – fits the bill, marginally more attractive to audiences back then who still wanted something along the lines of a ‘happy ending’ from their cinema stories. Regardless, The Big Combo delivers with fast-paced melodrama and some solidly scripted action sequences. It’s a gutsy noir thriller with few equals.
We could have done without Olive's usual lack of care on this release; advertised as 'restored' by UCLA Film and Television Archive in association with The Film Foundation’. I’ve seen a goodly number of titles restored by the Film Foundation. But The Big Combo doesn’t look like one of them. The image is riddled throughout with dirt, scratches and specks. There’s even a brief instance where one can spot a hair caught in the lower left-hand corner of the frame. There’s also some slight edge enhancement happening in this transfer; not terrible, though nonetheless obvious. The B&W image can exhibit solid tonality and mostly razor-precise sharpness, although on occasion contrast is ever so slightly boosted.
John Alton’s evocative deep focus cinematography ought to have looked fabulous in 1080p. Instead, we are increasingly distracted by the barrage of age-related artifacts that really dampen our enjoyment of the visuals. The damage is heavier during the first third of the movie, but more than evident throughout its 86 minute run time. No, this one won’t win any awards and that’s a shame. I can get more excited about The Big Combo’s lossless DTS 2.0, celebrating David Raksin's brassy underscore with perfect pitch bombast. But I’m more than a little disappointed such an important noir hasn’t even rated an audio commentary, much less a short featurette or even theatrical trailer. Bottom line: I’d really like to recommend this disc because the movie is fantastic. The transfer, however, is regrettably sub-par. Pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 -5 being the best)