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United States, 1955
Directed By: Joseph H. Lewis
Written By: Philip Yordan
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, Helen Walker, Helene Stanton
Running Time: 84 minutes
Is there anything left to say about Alexander Coleman and his exhaustive essays? (see his previous work on Out of the Past and The Big Heat) At work, whenever I have a break, I often head over to Coleman’s Corner In Cinema, find one of his pieces I haven’t read yet, and print it out. Because the one drawback to reading him online is that it induces eye strain.
From the abrupt opening note of David Raksin’s instantly, perceptibly moony, jazzy score, the viewer becomes aware of The Big Combo’s exquisitely composed cinematic mien as the titles play out over shots of an anonymous American city. The year is 1955 and film noir had fully matured into a self-conscious art form. Noir as an artistic style had become salient. Joseph H. Lewis, director of noirs such as My Name is Julia Ross (1945), So Dark the Night(1946), Gun Crazy (1949), The Undercover Man (1949) and A Lady Without Passport (1950), made The Big Combo as primarily a sexual contest. Lewis’s work, often marked by a distinct departure from the ordinary, “healthy” sensual impulses of people, with characters pursuing sexual satisfaction from means far from the typical, consuetudinary lifestyles of the more innocent people who occasionally ran into them. Non-noirs by Lewis such as Secrets of a Co-Ed, Duel of Honor, A Young Man’s Fancy and his two most famous noirs, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, explore this theme with strenuously gelid intelligence. The Big Combo, however, Lewis’s last noir, most definitively and comprehensively inquires the coria of such examinations.
The Big Combo stars Cornel Wilde as Lieutenant Leonard Diamond, a dogged, honest cop with a quixotic, senseless sexual obsession. That sexual obsession centers on his unrequited love for Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), disillusioned girlfriend to the charismatically peccant gangster, known as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), another twisted object of Diamond’s neurotic fixations, the man Diamond is determined to bring down at any cost. (Wilde and Wallace married each other four years before the release of the film.) The triangular thematic paradigm links Diamond’s professional and carnal conatus, drawing an uncompromisingly sharp mosaic from the chiaroscuro visual schema by master cinematographer John Alton, veteran of noirish black and white, light and shadow painting, in such films as Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) [nominally an Alfred L. Werker feature], Reign of Terror (1949) and Border Incident (1949).
Alton’s lighting is probably the most overwhelming factor that points to the film’s self-conscious inhabiting of noir. As with his films for Mann, Alton’s cinematography, in a rudimentary, literal way, cloaks the cheapness of the production. On a deeper plane, the lighting excellently conveys the hazardous battle of wills, enlivened by Wilde’s cop and Conte’s hood, and casts that contest in a preternaturally numinous black-and-white netherworld. That cinematographic virtuosity recalls the dreamlike lighting of the noir-horror tale of Raw Deal. That film was accompanied by Paul Sawtell’s unsettlingly eerie score; this film’s score by Raksin creates a hypnotic repetitiousness that underscores the ceaseless, seemingly winless war waged by Diamond. The almost wailing jazz tune becomes increasingly familiar, and aids the visual cues in communicating the dire situation of the film’s narrative.
One of the most succinct and truest moments of playfulness within the genre noted for its perfidy and danger is the first post-titles scene, which finds Wallace’s Lowell running down a dark arena corridor, the sounds of a live boxing bout and raucous crowd wafting through the echoing hall. Chased by two thugs named Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman), the audience is allowed to consider the worst–that the apparently scared Lowell may be running for her life. Instead, she is merely attempting to escape the boxing match, and Fante and Mingo only want to keep her in sight and close to Mr. Brown. Symbolically, however, the sequence succeeds terrifically as an expression of Lowell’s desires to leave the clutches of her “first love,” as she calls Brown later in the film.
The first scene with Brown takes place in the the locker room of the losing boxer, Benny, a little later in the evening. Brown and the man who was next in line to run the rackets, Joe McClure, confront the boxer, who has a contract with Brown. Screenwriter Philip Yordan provides the gangster with some of the finest, juiciest lines any Hollywood villain has ever had the opportunity to relish delivering, and Conte makes every single one of them count for all they are worth. His talkatively rat-a-tat way of controlling the people to whom he speaks, hypnotically demanding their unmitigated attention with his acidic words and almost manic delivery, is an overpoweringly logical way to intellectually disarm and defeat those around him, and the speech to Benny introduces the viewer to the characteristic.
“So you lost. Next time you’ll win. I’ll show you how. Take a look at Joe McClure here. He used to be my boss, now I’m his. What’s the difference between me and him? We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it! Now it belongs to me. We eat the same steak, drink the same bourbon… Look–same manicure, cuff links. But we don’t get the same girls. Why? Because women know the difference. They got instinct.” He offers his paramount thought about life: “First is first and second is nobody,” saying the line for the first time in the film but not nearly the last. “What makes the difference? Hate. Hate is the word, Benny. Hate the man who tries to kill you. Hate him until you see red and you come out winning the big money. The girls will come tumbling after. You’ll have to shut off the phone and lock the door to get a night’s sleep.” After Brown slaps Benny, he is crushed by the boxer’s inaction. “You should have hit back,” Brown snarls. “You haven’t got the hate. Tear up Benny’s contract,” Brown orders McClure. “He’s no good to me anymore.”
Mr. Brown, as written by Yordan, directed by Lewis and performed by Conte, is sangfroid, philosophizing to his henchmen, coolly manipulating everyone. He has a temper, but he keeps it in check and tries to look at things always from the objective perspective of business. Conte’s performance is one of the best in the long, celebrated line of the gangster character. His Mr. Brown upholds the double facade, firstly the obvious shielding of his actual criminal activities from the authorities, but the greater and more interesting emphasis he places on having, in the words of the gangsters who came before him in American cinema, “class,” with the cuff links and manicure, nevertheless possessing his celebrated “hate” that always keeps him razor sharp.
In one palpably tense scene with respective tonal components that act as equivalent weights, balancing out the horror and humor (reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s White Heat), Brown mercifully bestows upon an imminent victim the gift of being unable to hear the sound of the bullets that will destroy him. The film replaces the sound of gunfire with silence. Conte seems to interpret his character’s act as genuine charity˜the question of the necessity of the person’s death is not a question at all. In a full theatre today the scene evokes muted laughter and hushed comments of shock, creating an appreciative rippling response from the audience.
Wilde, of Czech-Hungarian descent, Hungarian-born, with his bulbous, intense dark eyes and imposingly burly frame, was perfectly cast as the obsessive lieutenant. His perpetual glare, the quiet moments with his girlfriend, a burlesque dancer named Rita, played to sweet, sincere perfection by Helene Stanton. They all add up a cop on the edge of burning out, driven by his twin and connected fixations, wondering why everything in his life seems to be backwards. “What is it about a hoodlum that attracts a certain kind of woman?” Diamond asks himself as much as Rita when they are alone, she knowing his mind is controlled by a certain other woman whose very existence grievously hurts him.
Rita’s mien and heart is altruistic, accepting her position as Diamond’s sexy, accessible avenue of relieving his stress while he bitterly complains about his unrequited love for a gangster’s woman. Rita’s answer is to the point: “A woman doesn’t care how a guy makes a living, only how he makes love.” Though her role is small, Stanton leaves an indelible impression, mixing earthy desirability with compassion and empathy for her beau, cursed with listening to his pathetic dissatisfaction with her–and himself. Only too late does Diamond realize he has been a selfish user, describing his relationship with the lady of burlesque as similar to a man with cold hands putting on gloves. In many ways, it is Rita who is the true hero of the picture. Diamond’s exaltation of Lowell as something of a golden-haired goddess obscures the truth, which is that the physically darker Rita is the more purely an gelic figure in the cop’s life.
And the lovemaking of Lewis’s film brought him under considerable scrutiny with the production code. In one scene, Brown attempts to silence Lowell as she speaks of her wonderment that she fell for him by physically imposing himself on her, unilaterally initiating foreplay, kissing and licking Lowell’s neck and shoulder, gradually moving himself downward. For 1955 especially, this scene seems to take forever, and concludes with a strong implication of oral sexual preliminaries. In the 1995 PBS “American Cinema” special about film noir, Lewis recalls the story of being interrogated by the censors and studio, demanding that the scene be removed. When inquiring why it must go, Lewis was given the answer, “You can’t see where Richard Conte goes to. Where does he go?” Lewis smartly tried to play dumb. “I have no idea,” Lewis said. “Maybe he went out for lunch,” since he becomes obscured for the rest of the scene after descending behind Jean Wallace. Lewis made the point that he had not shown anything, and it was up to the audience to decide where Conte had gone to, allowing the scene to remain uncut.
Other subtle sexual touches include the characters of Fante and Mingo, the homosexual couple who are at Mr. Brown’s beck and call. They stay in very close quarters with one another, exhibiting great loyalty and worry. Mingo is on the simple side, but Fante looks out for him in their treacherous dealings. Late in the film, when they are hiding out from the consequent heat created by the plying of their murderous trade, Mingo complains, saying, “I can’t swallow no more salami.” “It’s all we’ve got,” Fante reminds him. Mingo worries about where Brown is located. Fante places his hand on Mingo’s neck and shoulder, comforting him about their safeness. A moment later, after being sufficiently cajoled by the more assertive of the pair, Mingo tenderly puts his hand on Fante’s arm, talking about a future where the two have managed to escape this world, leaving it behind them and “never com[ing] back,” Mingo worries aloud about the police: “The cops will be looking for us in every closet,” he bemoans.
Perhaps most psychologically representative of the sexual theme, the act of humiliation and statement of power when Diamond is captured by Brown and his lieutenants. Brown tortures the cop by loudly playing radio music into a hearing aid device lodged in his ear. Yet that is hardly the entirety of Brown’s plan. He takes a bottle of hair tonic, 40% alcohol, hoping to create drunkenness, and forces Diamond’s mouth open, pouring the liquid down the lieutenant’s throat. The torturous oral rape-as-frame job encapsulates the one character’s sexual prowess, carnal satisfaction and corporeal superiority at the expense of the other, the dramatic essence of the triangular relationship between the cop, crook and moll.
A pivotal setting that deeply recalls the coda to Casablanca, a foggy airstrip, plays host to the moral choices that make the final act of the film mightily thrilling. The setting allows for Alton to joyously play with the monochromatic palette, and makes the presence of certain lights metaphorically convey the piercing power of the law and truth, penetratingly fighting through the ambiguity of the underworld. In the film’s riveting climax, a light indeed cinematically portrays the essential instrument in the cause of good against the seemingly enveloping darkness of masked criminality and corruption.
The Big Combo most clearly represents the confluence of the gangster picture, the noir and the cop movie all in one. American cinema had found the war between the indefatigable policeman and the ruthless crime boss to be of interest to many movie-goers before evenThe Racket (1928), and the pattern would remain all the way to the present. Yet Lewis’s last noir stands apart, touched as it is by the B-movie director’s own interests and themes, made into a starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematographic piece of art by Alton, and given full, magnificent life by the actors who take their archetypal roles and infuse them with depths of motivation spawned by the characters’ disparate places in the life of their anonymously typical American city, the most fruitful womb of the genre known as film noir.