The Big Combo (1955)

big1Another lapse on my disc buying- a sale on the Arrow website for a budget re-release of their previously OOP Four Film Noir Classics Blu-ray set was like Kryptonite straight to my current weak spot (£25 for four noir in HD with plenty of extras seemed a steal). So we start with what seems to be the highest-regarded film of the set: The Big Combo (a no-doubt inebriated Time Out reviewer during a 1970s revival gushed that it was the greatest film of all time, or something along those lines).

The Big Combo clearly isn’t the greatest film of all time, or the greatest noir film, either, but it is a very solid and beautifully photographed piece of work (the great cinematographer John Alton truly painting with light in this- its an exquisite-looking film, one of the most beautiful noir’s I’ve yet seen and a wonder to behold on Arrow’s disc). The music score is also particularly memorable, a moody, jazzy score typical of the genre but definitely one of the better ones I’ve heard. The film is very inventive in places- it features a truly bizarre torture scene and a later on a murder scene that plays out in complete silence: I can easily understand why the film is so highly regarded.

big2Its also, having watched Kiss Me Deadly the night before, a refreshingly subtle film (although to be honest, compared to that film, what film wouldn’t seem subtle?).

Sure, this film was quite dark and violent, full of typical noir tropes but it didn’t feel the need to bash me over the head every few minutes, and strangely enough, in the end this film was possibly even more subversive and daring in many ways. Gangster boss Mr Brown (a smooth but threatening Richard Conte) has two henchmen- Fante (an impossibly-young looking Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Hoffman) – who are homosexual lovers, something not made explicit but clearly signposted for anyone paying attention. Beautiful blonde Susan (Jean Wallace) is Mr Brown’s girl, but she’s captive lover, a trophy for the big tough boss (she’s already tried suicide as a way out). One evening during an argument when they are alone in his apartment, Mr Brown grasps at her and she tries to push him away, but he persists, lowering his head behind her out of camera view, and she eventually lets out a near-orgasmic sigh of guilty pleasure at whatever he’s doing to her (I’m not sure how this got past the censors at the time). This film seems to be confirming what other film’s good guys always suspected- the bad guys are better lovers.

Certainly the hero of the film, Police Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is himself unhealthily obsessed with Susan, seems a rather impotent individual (his ill-fated girlfriend is a nightclub dancer who hints its been six months since she last saw him). Diamond is wound up too tight, obsessed with bringing down Mr Brown and rescuing Susan -indeed  its suggested that he is so focused on Mr Brown simply because of Susan, the object of an unrequited love. As usual with these roles, Mr Brown is obviously the more interesting of the two- dynamic, strong and bold, while Diamond is very square, repressed and frustrated. Its interesting that at the close of the film (and I hope I’m not crossing too far into spoiler territory with a film 65 years old), that Susan and Diamond don’t fall into a typical clinch at the end- suggesting that Diamond may have saved the girl, but he won’t necessarily get the girl. This was really very refreshing, frankly, and typical of the restraint and sophistication of the film and how it bucks trends with impressive grace. This film is definitely one of the greats, and that Time Out reviewer wasn’t far wrong.



6 thoughts on “The Big Combo (1955)

  1. I have a soft spot for this movie. Lewis is such a stylish director – there’s not one of his films which doesn’t feature some quirky little visual touch, and of course this one benefits enormously from Alton’s artistry.

    On that scene with Wallace and Conte that has the power to raise eyebrows, it’s worth noting that it did cause a few problems for Lewis at the time. He was questioned and pressed repeatedly about this, particularly where exactly Conte actually went when he moved out of shot. Lewis replied: “How the hell do I know? What does an actor do when you move in on a close-up of someone else? Go sit down somewhere, I guess.”

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