ⓘ The Big Combo

The Big Combo

ⓘ The Big Combo

The Big Combo is a 1955 American 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 Wildes wife at the time. It also included the final screen appearance of actress Helen Walker.


1. Plot

Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is on a personal crusade to bring down the sadistic gangster Mr. Brown. He is also dangerously obsessed with Browns girlfriend, the suicidal Susan Lowell. His main objective as a detective is to uncover what happened to a woman called "Alicia" from the crime bosss past.

Mr. Brown, his second-in-command McClure and thugs Fante and Mingo kidnap and torture the lieutenant, then pour a bottle of alcohol-based hair tonic down his throat before letting him go. Diamond eventually learns through one of Browns past accomplices that Alicia was actually Browns wife. The accomplice suspects that Alicia was sent away to Sicily with former mob boss Grazzi, then murdered, tied to the boats anchor and permanently submerged. Diamond questions a Swede named Dreyer, who was the skipper of that boat but now operates an antiques store as a front, bankrolled by Brown. Dreyer denies involvement and does not want to disclose anything to Diamond, but is nonetheless murdered by McClure shortly after leaving his shop later that day.

Diamond tries to persuade Susan to leave Brown and admits he might be in love with her. He shows her a photo of Brown, Alicia and Grazzi together on the boat. Susan finally confronts Brown about his wife and is told she is still alive in Sicily, Italy, living with Grazzi.

Brown next orders a hit on Diamond. However, when his gunmen Fante and Mingo go to Diamonds apartment, they mistakenly shoot and kill Diamonds burlesque dancer girlfriend Rita instead. Diamond sees an up-to-date photo of Alicia but realizes it wasnt taken in Sicily since theres snow on the ground. This leads Diamond to suspect Brown did not kill Alicia but his boss Grazzi instead. Diamond is able to track Alicia to a sanitarium, where she is staying under another name. He asks for her help.

Meanwhile, Browns right-hand man, McClure, wants to take over. He plots with Fante and Mingo to ambush Mr. Brown, but they betray and murder him.

At police headquarters, Brown shows up with a writ of habeas corpus, effectively preventing Alicia testifying against her husband. Brown also takes a big stash of "money" to Fante and Mingo while they are hiding out from the police, but the box turns out to contain a bomb that apparently kills both of them.

Brown shoots Diamonds partner, Sam, and kidnaps Susan, planning to fly away to safety. However, Mingo survived the assassination attempt by Brown, so he confesses to Diamond that Brown was behind all the murders while sobbing over the body of his cohort. Alicia is able to help Diamond figure out that Brown took Susan to a private airport where he intends to board his getaway plane.

However, Browns plane does not show up and the film climaxes in a foggy airplane hangar shootout. Susan shines the fog lamp from Browns own car in his eyes, effectively blinding him, so the lieutenant is able to arrest him. The last scene shows the silhouetted figures of Diamond and Susan in the fog, considered to be one of the iconic images of film noir.


2. Production

The film was initially called The Hoodlum based on a story by Philip Yordan. It was originally going to be directed by Hugo Frugonese for producer Milton Sperling. Sperling tried to cast Spencer Tracy for the lead. The script was reportedly in great demand with Yordan apparently turning down offers of $75.000.

Eventually the film was a co production between Theodora, the production company of Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace, and Security, a company of Phil Yordan and Sidney Harmon. Wilde changed the title to "The Big Combination" and Jean Wallace suggested it be shortened to "The Big Combo".

Jack Palance was originally cast opposite Wilde. Filming was brought forward to start September 7, because of studio space availability. Palance dropped out of the film, claiming he wanted a week off after finishing The Silver Chalice 1954. Another source says he was unhappy his wife was not cast in the second female lead. He was replaced by Richard Conte. Contes casting meant the start date for another film Cry Vengeance had to be pushed back.

The film was shot in 26 days.


3.1. Reception Critical response

Reviews of the movie today are mostly positive. Chris Dashiell on the website CineScene finds the dialogue "run of the mill" but praises the films 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. its not as startlingly inventive as Lewiss best film, Gun Crazy 1949, but its a quality B-film, satisfying and dark."

The staff at Variety magazine liked the films 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 films 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 spiders web. John Altons lush camera work is so dominant here you wouldnt know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesnt have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the directors Gun Crazy, but thats no loss given this films richer returns. The set-pieces are fierce, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallaces performance - a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil - is one of noirs great unheralded triumphs."

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

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 92% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 13 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.04/10.


3.2. Reception Release on home video

The film was released on Blu-ray in a new HD restoration in 2019 by Arrow Films in the UK and Eire.


4. Soundtrack

Most film noir movies feature scores that are orchestral strings. In contrast, The Big Combo is one of few that has a brass trumpets, etc. and woodwinds saxophones, etc. score.

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