Mon 28 Jan 2008
THE BIG COMBO. Allied Artists, 1955. Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, Helen Walker, Helene Stanton. Director: Joseph H. Lewis. Original music by David Raksin.
This one’s the real deal. In the last week or so I’ve been telling you about bits and pieces of various movies that were noirish in nature, but by 1955 directors and cinematographers (John Alton, in this case, of Raw Deal and I, the Jury fame) who worked with noir films knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it well.
Mike Grost has done a superbly in-depth online analysis of the films of Joseph H. Lewis (no relation), and you should go read it. The Big Combo is one of his films that comes in for a lot of attention, including a good many things that didn’t register for me on my first time through. (Mike admits that he has watched many of Lewis’s films more than once.)
I’ll not repeat any of Mike’s thoughts and facts about the film. I don’t mind repeating myself by saying that you should go read it for yourself. I’ll be content to relay to you my impressions and not rely on any of his.
And impression number one is the reason I included David Raksin’s musical score in the credits. The loud jazzy opening scene, with a good-looking blonde running frantically from two thugs in the shadowy depths of a boxing arena is one of the finest in recent memory. Made me think the movie was about a jazz band (The Big Combo), in fact, but no, not so.
No, the Big Combo is essentially Mr. Big’s gang, Mr. Big being Mr. Brown (Richard Conte); the girl on the run is his girl (Susan Lowell, played by Jean Wallace); and the job the two thugs are doing (Fante and Mingo, aka Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) is to make sure she doesn’t get away from him.
Cornel Wilde as Lt. Diamond is the detective obsessed with bringing Mr. Brown to justice. That he is also obsessed with Susan Lowell, and in fact in love with her from afar — she does not even know of his existence — is getting him in trouble with the people who pay the bills. He has gone far beyond his department’s allotment of funds, and so far to no avail.
(That Jean Wallace was also Mrs. Cornel Wilde I did not know while watching the film. She is worthy of obsessing over, and so she fits the role perfectly, but her acting is only slightly above the ability of usual female model who goes to Hollywood.)
Better, I thought, was Helene Stanton as Rita, a showgirl of Diamond’s long acquaintance to whom he turns for solace when things begin to look their darkest. It is hinted at that perhaps she is more than a showgirl, for the place where she works is not the most upscale of joints.
This movie also hints at several other things, including the relationship between Fante and Mungo, which could be debated, as hints are all you are going to get.
Taunted by Mr. Brown into a fury, Diamond aches to find some hold or some charge he can get him on. That he makes only $96.50 a week only adds to the resentment. Mr. Brown does not hesitate to rub it in. The name “Alicia” means something to Mr. Brown, however, and it takes a nice bit of detective work to track down who she is and what she means to him.
I have not mentioned Brian Donlevy, who plays Joe McClure, a broken-down and not too intelligent assistant to Mr. Brown, outwardly always in his place, but inwardly frustrated at having been passed over when the position at the top of the gang became available. He wears a hearing aid, a fact ordinarily not worth mentioning, but in this case it is, and twice, both in scenes crucial to the story.
I did not care for the ending as much as most reviewers seem to have. Mr. Brown’s fall came too quickly to suit me, although it certainly came as no surprise that it happened, and that there was a way out that he didn’t take advantage of — well, it was a disappointment to me.
A minor quibble, perhaps. Otherwise, as I said at the beginning, this is the real thing. Fine acting, fine directing, and fine movie-making, all on a low B-movie budget. I dare not ask for more, nor should you.