The Big Combo, 1955
Directed by Joseph Lewis
Starring Cornell Wilde, Jean Wallace, Brian Donlevy, Richard Conte
The Big Combo didn’t generate much heat when released in 1955. But in the last ten years the film has picked up a good head of steam and ranks on many film noir aficionado “best” lists. I have to say I agree.
Penned by academy award winning screenwriter Philip Yordin, and directed by Gun Crazy’s Joseph Lewis, the action moves as fast as the gangster’s rap. Plot set-ups, character background and motivation are dispatched early– leaving more time for developing the story via intensely graphic imagery. (In fact the whole movie looks kind of like a graphic novel.)
The director, Joseph Lewis believed camera work could tell the story as well as, heck even better than the actors. He found a simpatico collaborator in John Alton, noir’s cameraman supreme. Alton crafted the intensely black and white world of The Big Combo— at times only illuminating a gun barrel and the curls of smoke in the air.
Alton and Lewis set the stage early. In the first scene there isn’t much dialogue, it opens with Susan running away from a boxing match. As Susan, Jean Wallace is incandescent. She literally glows between the two shadowy thugs assigned to watch over her. We quickly learn that she is a reluctant gun moll to Mr. Brown and the men are assigned to keep her “happy”. An near impossible task since she is into classical music and the gun goons love hep-cat grooves.
We are soon introduced to Mr. Brown. Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown is Little Caesar minus a tommy gun. His weapon of choice is his mouth. He mercilessly dismisses McClure, his second-in-command and former boss. He shames his loosing prize-fighter, denounces his dim-witted henchmen and doesn’t miss an opportunity to jab the detective on his tail, Diamond.
Brown (Conte) instinctively knows that the Detective Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is really after Susan, not him. He takes great delight in reminding Diamond that he can’t afford Susan on his cop’s salary.
As Diamond doggedly pursues a trail of clues throughout the city he runs into a great supporting cast. Not Casablanca great, but better than decent. Ted de Corsia plays an aging Italian mobster in hiding with pretty specific ideas on how he would like to be rubbed out. John Hoyt is a cagey swede (horrid accent) hiding amongst his antiques. Rita (Helen Stanton) is Diamond’s stripper girl friend.
But it is Brown’s witless henchmen that take the cake. How can someone run a successful criminal enterprise (with worldwide ties) with such a hapless duo? Lee van Cleef and a very young Earl Holliman ham it up respectively as Fante and Mingo — And they are definitely gay. If you need proof check out Mingo’s “sausage” quote while they are in hiding.
After several twists and turns the good guy wins . . . but does he get the girl?