powered by AFI
The last in a cycle of low-budget film noirs directed by Joseph H. Lewis before he turned his attention to Westerns and television work, The Big Combo (1955) is a rather unique entry for its genre due to its frank sexuality, extreme sadism and John Alton's stunning black and white cinematography that places the story in a world of shadows, spotlights and claustrophobic lighting schemes.
At the center of the story is Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde), a cynical cop who has become obsessed with arresting Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the head of a powerful crime syndicate who has cleverly eluded the authorities for years. Diamond's motivation, however, is clearly driven by his attraction to Brown's blonde mistress, Susan (Jean Wallace, the wife of Cornel Wilde), a former socialite and once promising pianist whose relationship with Brown is a mixture of sexual dependency and masochism. Aiding Brown in his operation is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), a defeated rival who now serves as his second-in-command, and a pair of hit men, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), who are inseparable, bound together by their blood lust.
The Big Combo ran into trouble with Hollywood's censorship board which trimmed a few scenes from the final release version due to the violence. By 1955 standards, the film was extreme in its depiction of certain sadistic acts. For instance, Diamond is captured at one point by Brown's henchmen and tortured by having a hearing aid placed in his ear and the volume of a live jazz drum solo turned up to the highest frequency. Writhing from the intense pain, Diamond eventually passes out as Brown watches dispassionately. In another scene [SPOILER ALERT], Fante and Mingo ambush Diamond's apartment emptying their machine guns into Rita (Helene Stanton), a burlesque dancer and former girlfriend who was waiting for Diamond to come home. We see her limp arm drop into the frame, her fingers still holding a smoking cigarette as the neon sign outside flashes its stark lighting across the room. As for the implied homosexual relationship between Fante and Mingo, it seems much more obvious now than it did in 1955. Not only are the two killers shown sleeping in the same room together but they often mirror married couples in their intimate exchanges with each other. There's a scene where the duo are starting to chafe under Brown's enforced quarantine from the law and Mingo grabs Fante's arm in an emotional moment, pleading "when we get out, let's never come back." [SPOILER ALERT] At the end, faced with Fante's lifeless body after an explosion, Mingo breaks down in tears, calling out to his beloved partner, "Don't leave me Fante!"
The most controversial scene, however, is one which defines the master-slave relationship of Brown and Susan. After trying to rebuff Brown's sexual advances, Susan succumbs to his lustful kissing that begins on her lips, moves to her neck and back and travels down her body out of the camera range while we see feelings of shame and sexual ecstasy play across her face. According to director Joseph H. Lewis in Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Devil Made It, it wasn't an easy scene for Jean Wallace to do, even though Lewis had clearly defined the character she was playing: "...you're attracted to this man because of his lewdness...This is what attracts you: no respectable man from Nob Hill is going to love you the way this gangster's going to love you.." The trouble began when Lewis described the scene to the actress: "Jean, when this man takes you in his arms, he doesn't stop kissing you on the lips, he doesn't stop at your earlobe, he doesn't stop at your neck, he doesn't stop at your tummy. He covers you all." She said, "Oh, how dare you? Why, even Cornel doesn't talk to me that way!" I said, "I wasn't aware I was talking to Cornel's wife - you're playing the part for Christ's sake." So she said, "Will you do me a favor? Now I know - I know what you mean - you don't have to say any more. But, the day we have to shoot this sequence, will you get Cornel off the set? Because I can't face him." I said, "OK."
The kissing sequence was filmed to Lewis's satisfaction but, as expected, Wilde was furious when he found out about it, shouting "How dare you shoot a scene like this with my wife? How dare you?" The censors decided they better have a look at it as well and Lewis was called into the projection room where one representative said, "This filth of showing a guy going down on a woman is not for the American audience." And I said, "You're the one that's filthy. That wasn't my intention at all. I left it to your imagination. If you want to imagine this, that's up to you...." He said, "Hell, what was the intent?" I said, "You supply me with the emotion, that's why I left it to the audience. But don't tell me I'm filthy, or a filthy director." And they left it in, of course. They had no basis. But Cornel never forgave me."
Originally, the working title of The Big Combo was The Hoodlum and it was based on a story by screenwriter/producer Philip Yordan. It was supposed to have been filmed in Eastman color but due to budgetary constraints it was shot in black and white at the Kling Studios. The movie was also the first joint effort of Security Pictures, Inc. (Yordan's company with his partner Sidney Harmon) and Theodora Productions, which was owned by Wilde and his wife.
After shooting began on The Big Combo, Lewis decided to make a casting change. "We had cast Jack Palance in the part," the director recalled, "and he was very flighty and wanted to do things in a manner I didn't understand; nor did the producers. One afternoon, the day before we were to start shooting, I think, they wanted to get a decision from him as to what his attitude would be. Apparently it wasn't the proper one, and they decided to call it quits. They came to me and said, "Who else can play the part?" I said, "I know a guy who'd be great - Richard Conte." Phil said, "Gee, he'd be wonderful." Nick was playing tennis at the club and we got him. He read the script that afternoon, said he'd like to do the part, and the next morning he went to work. So if there's anything in his characterization that had great appeal, I attribute it only to his talent."
On a stylistic level, The Big Combo is even more impressive than Gun Crazy (1950) with Lewis utilizing John Alton's chiaroscuro-like effects to comment on and express the main characters' psychological states. The scene where Susan is pursued and apprehended by Fante and Mingo has an exaggerated theatrical quality that borders on the hallucinatory. Lewis's use of sound is also innovative, particularly in the way he often uses music (both jazz and classical) to disorient and oppress his protagonists. One of the best examples of his sound design employs complete silence: [SPOILER ALERT] In McClure's death scene, his hearing aid is removed and the viewer experiences his demise - silently blazing guns - from his deaf and helpless perspective.
The Big Combo is much more highly regarded today than it was in 1955 when it was considered as little more than a B-movie crime thriller. Variety wrote that "It is done with grim melodramatics that are hard-hitting despite a rambling, not-too-credible plot, and is cut out to order for the meller fan who likes his action rough and raw. One torture scene in particular will shock the sensibilities and cause near-nausea." The New York Times was more dismissive, calling it "a shrill, clumsy and rather old-fashioned crime melodrama with all hands pulling in opposite directions." The reviewer also singled out Wilde for criticism, stating that he "plays his murkily defined role with uncertain vigor, and small wonder." Joseph H. Lewis, however, feels The Big Combo is one of his better film noirs though it doesn't top his personal favorite, Gun Crazy, from five years before.
Probably the best argument for spotlighting The Big Combo as a textbook example of the film noir genre is this entry by Carl Macek in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: "There is a sense of fatalism and perverse sexuality found in The Big Combo that exists in few noir films...Much in the same way as Lewis's classic Gun Crazy, there is an affinity between sex and violence; and the exploration of futility presents an ambience strangely reminiscent of an earlier period of noir films, such as Scarlet Street  and The Woman in the Window . These attitudes combine with John Alton's photography to create a wholly defined film noir, as the striking contrasts between the black and white photography and Lewis's sexual overtones isolate The Big Combo's characters in a dark insular universe of unspoken repression and graphic violence."
Producer: Sidney Harmon
Director: Joseph Lewis
Screenplay: Philip Yordan
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editing: Robert Eisen
Art Direction: Rudi Feld
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Cornel Wilde (Police Lt. Leonard Diamond), Richard Conte (Mr. Brown), Brian Donlevy (Joe McClure), Jean Wallace (Susan Lowell), Robert Middleton (Police Capt. Peterson), Lee Van Cleef (Fante).
by Jeff Stafford
Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich
Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward