A stubborn police lieutenant is determined to break up a crime syndicate ruled by a vicious gangster.
By the mid 1950s film noir, the shadowy world of which had given the cinema such crime classics as The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, and Gilda had pretty much run its course. Audience tastes in the United States were shifting away from the seediness and grit of the urban crime story, probably because by the mid 1950s Americans were enjoying prosperity and, significantly, were leaving the city and moving to the suburbs. An unprecedented consumerism took hold, and because it was the beginning of the space age, the new suburbanites were looking into a clean, bright future. Hence all those huge cars with outlandish tail fins and all that chrome; hence all those electrical appliances that promised housewives so much free time.
Everything was bigger and brighter, especially the movies, which were under threat from television. Cinerama and other widescreen formats tried to draw audiences back to the movie theatre, and Hollywood was launching spectacles like The Greatest Show on Earth, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Ten Commandments, and cheap, shlocky science fiction like The Blob and Them! (the director of Them!, Gordon Douglas, asked the editor if the film looked honest. He replied, “as honest as twelve-foot ants can look.”)
What chance did the gloomy world of jaded private eyes, damaged broads and brutal gangsters have against such entertainment?
The Big Combo is notable, then, for being one of the last of the film noirs. I would reluctantly recommend it, though, as I don’t think it’s a particularly great film. Although it’s well enough directed by Joseph H. Lewis, and has some atmosphere – mostly because of the excellent cinematography of John Alton – and a couple of good moments, the script by Philip Yordan is fairly by the numbers, and the acting – with a couple of exceptions – is poor. The star is Cornel Wilde, and he also produced. Wilde will always be remembered as a minor actor in Hollywood (with the exception of his Oscar nomination for playing Chopin in A Song to Remember). He had little in the way of screen presence, in spite of his best efforts to be tough. In real life he was an accomplished fencer and was fluent in several languages, but for me he never brought anything interesting to the movies.
He’s fairly stodgy here as Lt. Diamond, who stubbornly goes after a mob boss even after his superiors tell him to lay off the case for lack of evidence .There’s a lot of talk about how much it costs to tail crooks, which gives Diamond a chance to get all righteous about the spread of crime, how the hoodlums are ruining it for ordinary citizens. Diamond, incidentally, has a curious way of saying “hoodlum”, rhyming ‘hood’ with ‘food’.
It’s somewhat difficult to believe that the exotic looking burlesque dancer, Rita (Helene Stanton) would even bother with Diamond, especially as she knows his heart isn’t really in it. He is disconsolately in love with a gangster’s moll, Susan Lowell ( Jean Wallace). Susan is that old cliché of noir: high-class arm candy (she used to be a concert pianist, and when the film wants you to feel really sorry for her, she listens to classical music and looks wistful). Wallace is also fairly bland, but she was married to Wilde, and this is one of those cases where the producer cast a spouse or girlfriend in a role that her talents didn’t equal.
There are two bright spots in the whole thing: Brian Donlevy and Richard Conte. Donlevy is Joe McClure, who has aspirations to run the syndicate himself, but who apparently doesn’t have the killer instinct. “You’re a little man,” he’s told. The term “little man” pops up a lot in the film (there’s a lot of small man syndrome going on here). McClure has to settle for being Number 2 in the organisation. The word ‘mafia’ is never used in the film.
Richard Conte is good and vicious as the leader of the syndicate, the ruthless Mr. Brown. If his face is familiar to you, it’s because you’ll recognise it from several movies (A Walk in the Sun, 13 Rue Madeleine, Call Northside 777, I’ll Cry Tomorrow). He was Barabbas in The Greatest Story Ever Told, and he was the head of one of the five families in The Godfather. He’s a brutal mob boss here, and he has two nasty henchmen to do his bidding, one of which is the vulpine Lee Van Cleef (a name I can’t read without hearing him mutter ‘Tucamcari’). Van Cleef’s partner is dimwitted Earl Holliman. They dispose of several witnesses that could otherwise help the police lieutenant with the case.
But when it comes to dishing out torture, Mr. Brown prefers to do it himself, blaring music into a hearing aid to make a victim’s ears ring. The hearing aid belongs to his fixer, McClure, and it plays another key part in the film when he removes it so he can’t hear gunfire (this scene is probably also the most stylish point in the entire film).
Then there’s Helen Walker as a woman who has suffered a nervous breakdown for good reason, and who could ensure that Mr. Brown goes to prison, only she’s terrified of him.
There’s also the curious relationship between the two henchmen. Are they meant to be gay? They sleep in the same room: not the same bed, of course, not even married couples slept in the same bed. And Holliman has a habit of touching Van Cleef and looking hopefully at him, and he wants the two of them to double-cross the boss and run away together.
The Big Combo wisely implies most of its violence. As I said the script is only so-so. Yordan won an Oscar for the story of Broken Lance, and his name appears on such films as El Cid, King of Kings, Joe Macbeth, The Naked Jungle, and 55 Days at Peking. In the 1950s he was a front for several blacklisted screenwriters (perhaps his decent films were written by others, and the middling The Big Combo is all his own work).
I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it, not when there are so many better film noirs, but Alton’s stylish black and white cinematography is impressive. Alton won the Oscar for An American in Paris, and he also photographed The Teahouse of the August Moon, Tea and Sympathy, and Elmer Gantry, as well as writing a well-received book on the art, Painting with Light. The Big Combo isn’t quite good enough to be a truly classic noir, but it certainly looks the part.
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