Sunday, July 13, 2014


Allied Artists Pictures, 87m 52s

A masterful achievement in film noir:  THE BIG COMBO

Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN [1945], ROAD HOUSE [1948]) has been investigating notorious big timer Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) for years, but cannot make anything stick. Captain Peterson (Robert Middleton) lectures Diamond about lost time and money spent in hopeless pursuit of an untouchable, but Diamond is not discouraged easily. The lieutenant's determination is explained in part by his more than merely professional interest in Brown's beautiful blonde girlfriend Susan Lowell (Wilde's wife Jean Wallace). After an attempted suicide, Lowell mumbles the name "Alicia," which Diamond correctly identifies as an important lead when it comes to putting away the maddeningly elusive Brown.

L-R:  Fante (Lee Van Cleef), Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) and Mingo (Earl Holliman)

Lowell is a decent, cultured woman, ostensibly the antithesis of the arrogant crime lord Brown, who hates her passion for classical music (though definitely a man of means, he's connected to the low-brow culture of professional prizefighting). Why would such a woman become attracted to a man like Brown? The answer is suggested memorably when Brown disappears from a close-up to focus his attention on Lowell below her neck (a controversial scene that infuriated Wilde).

Brown (Richard Conte, off-camera) pleasures Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace)

While attending a piano concert, Lowell reveals, "I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond, a strange, blind and backward maze, and all the little twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown." As obsessed as he is, Diamond could have made a similar statement at this juncture. In a related sequence, Brown mutates his girlfriend's passion for music into an unnervingly painful torture session for Diamond (and the viewer).

Can you hear me now?

The other featured females of THE BIG COMBO effectively elevate Lowell the gangster moll to respectability. Alicia (Helen Walker) is a lush who became an embarrassment to Brown. Diamond's plaything Rita (Helene Stanton) is a dancehall girl who lives with less consideration than she deserves from her part-time lover. Conventional man/woman relationships all have their issues in THE BIG COMBO. The most loving relationship in the film is between Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), a romantic angle that seems strikingly overt for an American film released almost 60 years ago.

L-R:  Fante (Lee Van Cleef), Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) and Mingo (Earl Holliman)

Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) and Rita (Helene Stanton)

Actors again face the camera in conversation:  a popular noir convention

Screenwriter Philip Yordan was a creative power behind a number of notable noirs before the production of THE BIG COMBO, such as THE CHASE (1946), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), NO WAY OUT (1950) and DETECTIVE STORY (1951). The emphatic chiaroscuro B&W imagery captured by cinematographer John Alton is among the most expressionistic of the mid-'50s noir strain. Alton had served behind the camera for some other gritty noir classics, including T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), and the underappreciated MYSTERY STREET (1950). Director Joseph H. Lewis adapted the ending of his top-tier noir GUN CRAZY (1950) to conclude THE BIG COMBO, with unseen police voices, again obscured by fog, closing in on the criminal.

A new beginning is implied when the principals turn away from the camera

Having earned his noir stripes in CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949), THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949), WHIRLPOOL (1949), and THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), Conte is superb as the confident, smooth-talking hoodlum fond of imparting life lessons to all those he encounters. Sadly, the behavior of the Lowell character reflects the troubled life of Wallace, who attempted suicide twice in the 1940s.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in association with The Film Foundation, the Blu-ray available from Olive Films is not entirely free from artifacts, but it’s newly re-mastered in HD, framed at 1.78:1, and a nice upgrade for film noir fans.