The Big Combo
Cast & Crew
One night, Fante and Mingo, minions of organized crime boss Mr. Brown, apprehend Susan Lowell, Brown's girl friend, after she runs away from them. Upon catching Susan, they take her to a restaurant, where she collapses from an overdose of sleeping pills. Unknown to the criminals, they are followed by policeman Sam Hill, who retrieves Susan's purse and takes it to police lieutenant Leonard Diamond. Diamond, who has just been chastised by Capt. Jeff Peterson for spending too much money on his relentless and unsuccessful pursuit of Brown, is in love with Susan, and immediately rushes to the hospital to question her. In order to keep Susan from being released to Brown, Diamond arrests her for attempting suicide, but when he questions the fatalistic young woman, all she tells him is that recently Brown was brooding in his apartment and writing the name "Alicia" on the foggy windows. Diamond's interrogation is interrupted when Brown's lawyer arrives with a writ to release Susan, and so Diamond decides to arrest all of Brown's men and question them about Alicia. The underlings are baffled by their arrests, and only one, Brown's right-hand man and former boss, Joe McClure, knows the meaning of the name. Brown agrees to take a lie detector test, but grows angry when Diamond mentions Alicia and the name Bettini, and storms out. That night, Peterson again reprimands Diamond for wasting police resources, and the depressed Diamond spends the evening with his sometime girl friend, burlesque dancer Rita. The next night, Rita tells Diamond she has heard that Brown has put out a contract on him, but Diamond shrugs off her concerns. As he is leaving the theater, Diamond is kidnapped by Mingo, Fante and McClure, who take him to the hidden cellar undernearth Brown's hotel. There, when Diamond refuses to answer Brown's questions, the gangster tortures him by inserting McClure's hearing aid into his ear and holding the amplifier next to a blaring radio. Diamond passes out from the pain, and in order to make him look drunk, Brown forces him to drink an alcohol-laden bottle of hair tonic. Mingo and Fante then leave the staggering Diamond at Peterson's apartment, where Diamond recovers and tells Peterson the story. Regretting his dismissal of Diamond's obsession with Brown, Peterson recalls that seven years earlier, Ralph Bettini was the right-hand man of Grazzi, the former leader of the "big combination" now run by Brown. When Grazzi left New York for Sicily, Bettini disappeared, and Diamond speculates that he could provide useful information. Diamond locates the fearful old man, and Bettini relates that during the ocean voyage that took Grazzi to Sicily, Brown argued with his wife Alicia, a farm girl whose loathing of Brown's violent lifestyle turned her into an alcoholic. Alicia disappeared, and Bettini, afraid that Brown had killed her, jumped ship and went into hiding. After Bettini remembers that the ship's captain was named Nils Dreyer, Diamond goes to Dreyer's antique shop but Dreyer refuses to divulge any information about Brown. After Diamond leaves, Dreyer is gunned down by McClure, who is then castigated by Brown for resorting to violence when he was instructed only to bring Dreyer in. The next day, Diamond searches Dreyer's safe-deposit box and finds the negative of a photograph of Alicia with Brown and Grazzi, as well as a notation to refer to the 15 November 1946 log entry of the S.S. Grazzi . Diamond rushes to Dreyer's shop, where he finds that Brown has obtained legal ownership of Dreyer's papers and has burned the log. Diamond then finds Susan at a concert hall, where he gives her the photograph of Alicia and begs her to leave Brown before her life is endangered. After Alicia confronts Brown with the photograph, he gives her a recent picture of Alicia that he asserts was taken a month earlier on Grazzi's estate. Later that night, while Rita waits for Diamond in his apartment, Brown orders Fante and Mingo to kill the policeman, and the two hoods shoot through the door and kill Rita without ever seeing her. Diamond is paralyzed with guilt over the tragedy until Susan comes to his office soon after with the new picture of Alicia. Police technicians examine the photograph and learn that instead of being taken in Sicily, it was taken at an upstate sanitarium. McClure follows Diamond to the sanitarium, where he finds Alicia, who was committed by Brown just after Grazzi left the country. Although Alicia claims that she does not know Brown, McClure rushes back to Mingo and Fante, and tells them that Brown killed Grazzi and has been pretending that Grazzi is alive in Sicily so that the other syndicate members will follow him. McClure tells them that if they kill Brown now, they will become the new leaders. He then drives Brown to a private airport, where Fante and Mingo are supposed to gun him down, but instead, the two hoods aim their guns at McClure. McClure begs for his life, but Brown merely removes his hearing aid before he is shot to death. At Diamond's office, Alicia refuses to talk, even when Susan states that she will be testifying against Brown. Susan breaks down in tears upon seeing a photo of Rita's bullet-riddled corpse, and Alicia finally agrees to testify. As she is leaving the office, however, she sees Brown waiting for her and goes into a state of shock. Soon after, McClure's body is found, and Diamond realizes that Brown is becoming careless. Mingo and Fante hide in the hotel cellar for two days, until one evening, Brown brings them food and a box of money. When Fante opens the booby-trapped box, it explodes, killing him and mortally wounding Mingo. Diamond arrives before Mingo dies, and the gangster, furious over Fante's death, implicates Brown. Before Diamond can find him, though, Brown kidnaps Susan and escapes to the airport. Diamond follows them, and with Susan's help, captures the now-cowering Brown. Weary yet content, Diamond and Susan walk off together into the fog.
Lee Van Cleef
Ted De Corsia
Philip Van Zandt
The Big Combo
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
The Big Combo
She's under arrest, Mr. Brown.- Leonard Diamond
What's the charge?- Mr. Brown
Homicide.- Leonard Diamond
That's ridiculous, she wouldn't kill a fly.- Mr. Brown
She tried to kill herself- Leonard Diamond
A woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, just how he makes love.- Rita
The working title of this film was The Hoodlum. The film's opening title cards read: "Allied Artists Pictures Corporation presents Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace in The Big Combo by Philip Yordan." Although the Copyright Catalog incorrectly lists the film's copyright date as February 13, 1954, onscreen credits and the copyright record correctly list it as February 13, 1955. According to a June 23, 1954 Los Angeles Times item, Yordan's original screenplay "was in great demand with reported bidders, including United States Productions, Russ-Field, Frank P. Rosenberg and Edward L. Alperson." The article claimed that Yordan had "turned down offers of as high as $75,000 plus a percentage" for his script.
According to a August 31, 1954 Daily Variety news item, Jack Palance was originally cast as "Mr. Brown," but was replaced by Richard Conte after Palance insisted that his then wife, Virginia Baker, be cast in the film. Hollywood Reporter news items include Peter Ortiz, Charles Victor, Morgan Windbiel and Diana Darin (also known as Thelia Darin) in the cast, but their appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed. A June 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the picture would be made in Eastman color, but the film was photographed in black-and-white. Hollywood Reporter news items and production charts noted that the picture was shot at the Kling Studios, while a December 23, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the music scoring was done at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.
The picture marked the first production of Theodora Productions, which was owned by actor Cornel Wilde and his wife, Jean Wallace, and Security Pictures,Inc. headed by Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon. A number of reviews singled out the scene during which "Lt. Leonard Diamond" is tortured by "Mr. Brown" for comment, with the Daily Variety reviewer terming it "particularly brutal" and the Hollywood Reporter critic calling it "as nerve-wracking as anything seen on the recent screen."
Released in United States Winter February 13, 1955
Completed shooting September 21, 1954.
Released in United States Winter February 13, 1955