|The Big Combo
Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Earl Holliman, Lee
Van Cleef, Robert Middleton, John Hoyt, Ted De Corsia
||Four and a half stars
Film noir is generally considered to have been on the wane by 1955, but
this dark gem by director Joseph H. Lewis and writer Philip Yordan
(whose name appears on the same card as the title of the movie) is a
near-classic. If it doesn't quite achieve the upper levels of this
hard-to-define, easy-to-recognize subgenre, it's still imaginative,
beautifully photographed (by the great John Alton), taut and
suspenseful. It's not as well known as other films noir, but it
certainly deserves to be -- and this fine, if extras-free, DVD is the
perfect way to own this well-made thriller.
Cornel Wilde plays police detective Leonard Diamond, a lonely,
hard-bitten man who considers it his personal duty to bring down the
local gangster boss who's known as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). Diamond's
boss (Robert Middleton) tries to convince Diamond to veer away from his
obsession, which is costing the police department a lot of money, but
Diamond is implacable. He's come to see the destruction of Brown as his
duty, a job only he can accomplish.
Conte plays brown as an arrogant sadist whose slogan is "first is first
and second is nobody." He cares nothing at all for rules, ethics and
morality -- they're for suckers. Early in the film, he advises Bennie
(Steve Mitchell), the boxer he has under contract, to hate his
opponents; only then, Brown says, can he really defeat them. Bennie
hesitates, so Brown slaps him; when Bennie doesn't slug him back, Brown
cancels the contract.
Brown keeps former big-time mobster Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) around
mostly to sadistically torment him from time to time. When the biggest
previous boss, Dreyer (Ted de Corsia), left the city, McClure wasn't
quick enough, and Brown took over.
Brown also tortures his mistress Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), who can't
free herself from his clutches, at least not until Diamond tries to
persuade her to testify against Brown.
There's very little that's novel about the plot of THE BIG COMBO, but
that doesn't matter in the slightest. Few films noir had original plots
-- it's the way they are made, and the characters who inhabit them,
that define greatness in a film noir. THE BIG COMBO has the usual
twists and turns: Brown can't dissuade Diamond with threats or
violence. (He uses McClure's hearing aid as a torture device.) Diamond
persists because he has to; Brown loses at last because he's incapable
of understanding the wellsprings of Diamond's persistance -- or that
his own sexual obsession with Susan can be used as a weapon against
him. Susan is bound to Brown by perverse sexual ties, but still feels
guilty enough that when she's hospitalized after a suicide attempt, she
moans the name of Brown's hidden wife (Helen Walker) in her sleep.
Unusually for a noir protagonist, Diamond's past doesn't play a major
role in his obsessions, but he's one of the few in the story whose past
isn't constantly threatening to catch up with him. His only
relationship outside the department, until Susan enters his life, is
with stripper/prostitute Rita (Helene Stanton), whom he alternates
between treating coldly and lovingly. He's a very unhappy man, though,
just like almost everyone in the film other than Brown and his two main
henchmen, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman). These two
aren't sadists, like Brown; they're just competent brutes who enjoy
their work -- and they are also gay lovers, a relationship that Lewis
and Yordan managed to slip past the usually-alert censors of the 1950s.
"THE BIG COMBO seems to take place almost entirely at night, with the
deep shadowy lows and harsh stabbing highs that are common in films
noir. But Lewis goes even further, and stylizes the film almost to the
point of abstraction. A box seat at a theater is indicated solely by
the actors sitting in front of a curtain, and looking off in the
direction of the stage, which we never see. The climax takes place at a
darkened airport; the set is thick with fog, and everyone is either in
a glaring light, or a silhouette against the softly glowing fog.
The cast is mostly excellent. Wilde had been the epitome of the
pretty-boy star for about the past ten years, but was determined to be
a good actor; he eventually ended up directing himself in a wide
variety of movies, the best of which was THE NAKED PREY. He's not
entirely convincing as the driven, obsessive cop, but that's mostly by
comparison with Richard Conte, who's excellent as the brutal Mr. Brown.
It's a tough, intelligent, scary performance, one the best in this
underrated actor's career.
Jean Wallace (Mrs. Wilde) was miscast as Susan Lowell; she's
attractive, but her somewhat odd face looks like a blend of a teenage
boy and a female Scandinavian saint: angular, ascetic and a little
grim. Her voice is also on the weak side, but she does have a
satisfactorily downtrodden aura. Van Cleef and Holliman are both very
good as the thugs who share a bed, while Donlevy, unusually cast as a
weakling, gives a quietly powerful performance as a man who knows his
days are numbered. (His death scene is very unusual.)
There's nothing special about the DVD itself; it's merely a way to
present this outstanding thriller to the public. (It should be noted
that the copy reviewed had an annoying but faint buzz throughout the
film.) Not every video purchase has to put a home theater system to the
test; this is simply a very good movie, well worth seeing, well worth
||No extras other than scene access
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||36-inch Sony XBR