The Big Combo (1955)

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis

The Big Combo is a 1955 film noir crime film directed by Joseph H. Lewis and photographed by cinematographer John Alton, with music by David Raksin.

The film stars Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte and Brian Donlevy, as well as Jean Wallace, who was Wilde’s wife at the time. It also included the final screen appearance of actress Helen Walker.

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unacknowledged film noir classic!

9 October 1999 | by Rajdeep EndowSee all my reviews

It is surprising that the brilliance of this film has not been adequately recognised by the viewing public or the critics. Probably inspired by the prototypical rogue cop in Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat”, this film features the crusade of one man – Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde in a super performance) to pin down Richard Conte’s smooth-tongued gangster. Struggling to keep away the departmental bureaucracy, he battles singlehandedly against organised crime with a devotion to duty bordering on the obsessional (“It’s my sworn duty to push too far”).

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Despite the absence of any big name in the cast, this film presents all the elements that we have come to love about American film noir – great lighting and photography, tight script (“First is first, and second is nobody”), a great storyline, and some superb performances (Susan Lowell as a society girl – the gangster’s moll – is ravishing).

Watch this film. It’s time it got recognition amongst the greatest films to come out of Hollywood. Ever.

Reviews of the movie today are mostly positive. Chris Dashiell on the website CineScene finds the dialogue “run of the mill” but praises the film’s director, writing that “Lewis had a remarkable ability to infuse poetry into the most banal material, and The Big Combo is one of his best efforts… it’s not as startlingly inventive as Lewis’s best film, Gun Crazy (1949), but it’s a quality B-film, satisfying and dark.”

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The staff at Variety magazine liked the film’s direction, music and photography, despite “a rambling, not-too-credible plot.” They wrote, “Performances are in keeping with the bare-knuckle direction by Joseph Lewis and, on that score, are good. Low-key photography by John Alton, one of his best,and a jazz-derived score by David Raksin with solo piano by Jacob Gimpel are in keeping with the film’s tough mood.”Film critic Ed Gonzalez lauded the film in his review, writing, “Shadows and lies are the stars of The Big Combo, a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented texture of a spider’s web …

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John Alton’s lush camera work is so dominant here you wouldn’t know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesn’t have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the director’s Gun Crazy, but that’s no loss given this film’s richer returns. The set-pieces are fierce, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallace’s performance—a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil—is one of noir’s great unheralded triumphs.”

Critics have compared the quality of The Big Combo to Fritz Lang‘s The Big Heat as one of the great film noir detective classics in terms of style.

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The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 91% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on eleven reviews

Tell Him You Hate Music And Quickly!

9/10
Author: ArchAngel Michael from Quis Ut Deus?
23 August 2016

Spoilers Ahead:

Conte gave great performances in Thieves’ Highway, in an atypical hero role, and as a good villain in Cry Of The City; this is the best villain he ever achieved. Mr. Brown vents his venom equally upon henchmen, his number two Donlevy, and Diamond his nemesis on the police force. This Noir is one of a kind in its rare delineation of the terrible fate of the gangster’s moll.

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As the movie opens, we get to see Susan’s exasperation at dragging around two hoods who shadow her everywhere she wishes to go. Van Cleef and Holliman are excellent at showing you how they cannot wait to get their nasty hands on Susan who is on the down-slope of that all important: keeping Mr. Brown’s attentions. She conveys this great sense of the foreboding of what is to come. Be warned, this is not remotely for kiddies, truly the darkest Noir of the period next to CrashOut. Conte taunts everyone around him constantly daring them to attack him. Even a boxer is not spared from his lecture on improperly hating his opponent sufficiently. He uses his number two, whom he displaced, as a negative example of not having sufficient B’s to destroy anyone in your way friend or foe. He finishes the lesson off by striking the boxer, normally a very bad idea, but Conte’s Mr. Brown is pure ambitious malevolence in human form.

My header comes from a very innovative torture session on Diamond using hair tonic and a hearing aid to dish out some serious physical abuse. This Noir is also rare in its departure of showing the cops in an idealized form: not here, the corruption is on full display with Mr. Brown having tentacles into Diamond’s superiors. Wilde was always a ‘pretty boy’ of the period with limited acting range, Donlevy and Conte make up for any acting deficits. Brown is outsmarting Diamond all throughout the movie, with a little help from his goons and downtown corruption. Brown is just as cruel to anyone working for him, watch what happens when he thinks Van Cleef and Holliman know too much!

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The best scene in the movie is Brian Donlevy’s horrible fate when he tries an end run, attempting to bribe Brown’s goons in a tragic coup, to wrest control from Mr. Brown. Brown was so clever that he sensed the smoldering resentment beneath Donlevy’s surface, the poor sap takes the bait; it doesn’t go well. Wilde’s acting limitations are made up by a bevy of gorgeous women who are believably chasing after Wilde. Diamond’s obsession with Alicia, coupled with Susan’s awareness of Brown’s ruthlessness, gives us a believable ending.

SPOILER: I love the finale, forgive the philosopher: What a powerful existential metaphor for Brown. Like a freaking vampire, Light destroys him. He scurries about like the giant rat he is with Susan shining the light on him. This is an example of how good a movie this is, it is not a brainless, boring Noir like The Clock; this is intense and violent with great writing.

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You will believe Brown got to the top after watching Conte’s portrayal of him. I collect Noir and it is Conte’s best performance by a mile. Everything and everyone is background to his Mr. Brown. Even his creepy goons give him a wide berth. While not a feminist Noir, Susan shows us the feminine side of being a moll plus the destruction of Brown is left to her: quite apropos. She goes from a terrified victim, anticipating her future destruction, to the spotlight operator of doom, at the very end. After The Lineup and The Big Heat, this is my third favorite Noir. It was just released on Blu Ray, you will have to zoom it to get those crappy side bars off of the screen. The more famous of Noirs: Laura, Double Indemnity and Out Of The Past, simply don’t have the intensity, all the way through, that these three do. They are short, intense and well written. I love Out Of The Past but it does has some slow parts in it. This, like the aforementioned other two, moves like lightning. A Great Film Noir. He Is One Nasty Music Lover!. Q.E.D.

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I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.

9/10
Author: Spikeopath from United Kingdom
6 August 2010

The Big Combo is directed by Joseph H. Lewis, written by Philip Yordan and photographed by cinematographer and noir icon John Alton. David Raksin scores the music and it stars Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Wallace, Brian Donlevy, Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman. The story sees Wilde as Police Lt. Leonard Diamond who is on a personal mission to bring down sadistic gangster Mr. Brown (Conte). Something that’s doubly perilous since he’s infatuated with Brown’s girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Wallace), who is trapped by the hold that Brown has on her.

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Violent, dark and sexy, The Big Combo is a riveting experience from start to finish. In truth, Yordan’s writing is pretty standard stuff here, but Lewis, Raksin and Alton really raise the bar in film noir atmospherics. From the nifty beginning where a blonde lady flees a darkened boxing match-pursued by two heavies-to the foggy airport conclusion, Lewis’ movie revels in shifty shadows, shifty sexual motives and even shiftier characters. Upon its release the film caused something of a stir on account of its tricksy thematics, and that’s not hard to believe since the film still comes off as potent even today. It’s a film where what you don’t see has the greater effect, and where suggestion is everything; for better or worse. One sexy scene involving Conte {stepping in when Jack Palance bailed} and Wallace so incensed Wilde, who was then married to Wallace, he tried to have it taken out the picture! Yes this is a ripper of a movie to be sure.

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Set entirely at night time, in and amongst dimly lit back alleys, rain-sodden pathways and moody plush apartments, the piece gives Alton the chance to shoot his chiaroscuro magic. I can’t state enough just how great his work is here, sexual urges are cloaked in a fatalistic sheen, nocturnal shenanigans briefly lit by the blink of some neon ray. Masterful. Away from the smart technical aspects (the cast are strong, the set pieces brisk too), the piece works great as a gangster movie, this in spite of there only being a small handful of crooks in the story. That the two henchmen {superbly underplayed by Cleef & Holliman} are evidently gay, just adds more sexual deviance into the sleazy norish stew. Gangsters, cops & society gals, all of them have a sense of doom hanging over them, to which they have the same things in common; that of blending violence with sex. Raw direction, moodily photographed and jazzily scored, The Big Combo is a big movie in the noir pantheon. 9/10

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You can’t tell a jury that a man’s guilty because he’s too Innocent!

7/10
Author: sol from Brooklyn NY USA
15 April 2007
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

****SPOILERS**** Were introduced to the movie “The Big Combo” with a really super cool and jazzy score by music composer David Raksin. At a local boxing arena and see this cool, like the music, statuesque and sharp looking blond running from two perusers who we assume are out to either work her over or even kill her. We find out soon enough that the two man chasing and finally catching up with the woman are Fante & Mingo, who sound like a song and dance duet, played by Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman and the sexy blond is Susan Lowell, Jean Wallace, who’s Fante & Mingo boss Mafiso Mr Brown’s, Richard Conte, very uncooperative girlfriend.

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Susan doesn’t know it at the time but she caught the eye of police Let. Leonard Diamond, Cornel Wilde, who became so infatuated with her, from afar, that he spends all his off, and vacation, time following her around to keep tabs not only on Susan who’s abusive boyfriend Mr. Brown that Let. Diamond wants to free her from. It’s when Susan swallows a jar of sleeping pills that almost kills her that Let. Diamond makes his move using that tragic occasion to have Susan arrested for attempted murder, of herself, in her suicide attempt.

Trying to save Susan from the unfeeling and obsessive Mr. Brown Let. Diamond does his share of abusing Susan himself by hounding her, in and out of the hospital emergency ward, to the point where she almost suffers a nervous breakdown. We later learn Mr. Brown also drove his old lady Alicia, Helen walker, to crack up as well. In fact it’s Alicia who’s the key to this whole confusing story with her sudden disappearance on a cruise in the middle of Atlantic Ocean some seven years earlier!

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Trying to get a murder rap on Mr. Brown for his wife’s Alicia murder Let. Diamond uncovers the startling fact that it wasn’t Alicia who Mr. Brown whacked, or deep sixth, some time ago on that Atlantic cruise. Mr. Brown knocked off his former boss Mr. Grazzi who’s job as big time Mafia kingpin Mr. Brown took over! Alicia in fact is alive and-well let’s just say alive-with her being put against her will into a private sanitarium where she now spends all of her time talking to and conversing with the plants that she grows in the sanitariums greenhouse.

The film has Let. Diamond go so far in his obsessive attempt to get Mr. Brown arrested so he can save Susan from his clutches, and even more important keep her all to himself, that you don’t look at what he’s doing as anything righteous heroic or even legal! It’s all a desperate act of a loved crazed and uncontrollable stalker very much like the unbalanced Travis Bickel in “Taxi Driver.

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Mr Brown for his part had nothing but sheer contempt for the overzealous and obnoxious Let.Diamond who at first didn’t even talk directly to him using his now stooge, as well as doormat, and former boss Joe McClure, Brian Dunlevy, as his intermediary or interpretor! Even though he and Let. Diamond both spoke the English language! It’s when Let. Diamond starts to put the screws on him that Mr. Brown starts to play dirty.

Mr. Brown using his two henchmen Fante & Mingo to go so far as to kidnap the pain in the butt Let. Diamond They then torture and humiliated him, by forcing a bottle of hair lotion down his throat. Fante & Mingo finally try murder Let. Diamond only ending up drilling his old girlfriend, who was replaced by Susan, Rita (Helen Stanton)with 11 bullets as she was staying in a fleabag hotel room that Let. Diamond was registered in.

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Like all sick and deluded sociopaths Mr. Brown turns out to be his own worst enemy by turning his own gang of hoods against himself. The kicker comes when Mr. Brown tries to do in both loyal and dedicated Farte & Mingo for all the good work they did for him in the movie, like setting up the vengeful and a bit delusional Joe McCrue. Bringing the two hoods a box filled with dynamite sticks, which he told the two hit men was a gift for their services, Mr. Brown has it set to go off as soon as they opened it. It went off all right but only Farte got blown away with his tight as a Victorian brassiere bosom buddy Mingo miraculously surviving. Mingo now knowing what a back-stabbing creep his boss Mr. Brown is decides to spill the beans on him which in the end got him a lifetime and rent-freed apartment, or cell, in the state penitentiary.

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