“First is first and second is nobody!”
The film noir cycle of the late 1940s and early 1950s was actually beginning to wane when one of the finest films of that genre appeared in 1955. Released by Allied Artists, The Big Combo ranks with Gun Crazy (1950, UA) as the best of the films of director Joseph H. Lewis.
The Big Combo is a crime melodrama that blended overt sexually with graphic violence at a level seldom seen in films of the 1950s. It is, of course, in that respect, nothing compared to the explicitness of current films. But there is a brutality about how the film’s story plays out that still delivers quite a jolt today.
Image Entertainment has now released The Big Combo on DVD. The film was previously available only on VHS, never having made it to laserdisc.
Police detective Leonard Diamond knows that Mr. Brown is treasurer for the mob and has been trying for over half a year to gather evidence that might convict him. During that time, Diamond has also become attracted to Brown’s girlfriend Susan Lowell. Obsessed with trying to get Brown, Diamond harasses him through massive false arrests which eventually lead Brown to consider putting out a contract on Diamond. To serve as a warning, Brown along with three of his men — McClure, Mingo and Fante, torture Diamond using a hearing aid placed in Diamond’s ear to amplify sounds to painful levels.
Spurred on by this treatment, Diamond learns that the key to bringing Mr. Brown down may be what went on years ago between Brown, a mystery woman named Alicia, and Brown’s ex-boss. Discovery of Alicia’s fate and the eventual assistance of Susan Lowell are critical elements that lead Brown and Diamond on a final collision course.
The Big Combo is a film from the top tier of film noir. It has the visual style in spades, the hostile environment of an urban landscape, and focuses strongly on the protaganist Diamond’s obsessions — with Mr. Brown and with Susan Lowell, an unconscious femme fatale. The latter obsession is one over which Diamond seemingly has no control and for which he has no explanation. Nor does he seem any closer to resolving that obsession at the end.
Director Joseph H. Lewis, who just died in late August at age 93, laboured throughout his career on pictures with limited budgets. Beginning as a camera boy at MGM in 1926, he soon became involved in film editing and eventually second-unit direction in the 1930s. Most of his initial directing efforts were B-westerns at Universal and Republic. His best work was after World War II beginning with the film noir My Name Is Julia Ross (1945, Columbia). It was a genre he would become closely associated with over the next ten years. In addition to The Big Combo and the above-mentioned Gun Crazy, Lewis’ noir titles included: So Dark the Night (1946, Columbia), The Undercover Man (1949, Columbia), and A Lady without Passport (1950, MGM).
Lewis’ films had a very distinctive style, much of which initially grew out of the necessity to deal with tight economics, but which Lewis refined to an art. His style’s characteristics include camera movement, low key lighting, high contrast, location shooting, long takes, off-screen action, sound manipulation and minimal dialogue. Certainly in The Big Combo, visual aspects are dominant throughout. The contrast between the light on the players’ faces and their inky surroundings is startling at times, accentuating the isolation that each of them increasingly must feel as the film’s events close in on each of them. One of the most effective scenes is the mistaken shooting of Diamond’s occasional girlfriend Rita who is sitting waiting for Diamond in his apartment. Mingo and Fante fire into the apartment and when they finish, after a few seconds, the image of Rita’s hand, brightly lit, flops weakly out of the darkness. It’s a far more horrific image than any graphic shooting could be.
The Big Combo is actually known for two particular sequences — one for its brutality, the other for its sexuality — that were unusual for films of the time. The torture scene of Diamond by Brown and his men was particularly graphic by 1950s’ standards. Certainly the agony of painfully high sound being played in Diamond’s ear is convincingly portrayed, but as effective is the forcing of most of a bottle of hair tonic down Diamond’s throat. The second sequence is that during which Mr. Brown kisses Susan in their apartment. He starts with her lips, but eventually moves to her ears and neck. The camera focuses in on Susan’s face, as Brown’s head lowers, telling her he’ll do whatever she wants. The implication in his voice and the reaction on her face are quite clear as to what’s occurring. As Lewis later related in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Jean Wallace (who played Susan) and who was married in real life to Cornel Wilde (who played Diamond) was uncomfortable enough about doing the sequence that she asked Lewis to ensure that Wilde was occupied elsewhere during the actual shooting. Wilde later apparently never forgave Lewis for allowing his wife to be portrayed in such a suggestive way. The censors of the time were unhappy also, but since nothing was actually shown and all was by implication, the sequence remained in the film as shot.
Among a very good cast that included the already-mentioned Wilde and Wallace were familiar character actors Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman as the implied gay duo Fante and Mingo, and Robert Middleton as Diamond’s superior. But the real standout is Richard Conte as Mr. Brown. Jack Palance had apparently been initially cast for the role, but he was dropped a day before shooting began due to professional differences. Lewis thought of Conte, who agreed, and his selection turned out to be a masterstroke. Mr. Brown, while a hoodlum, had to convey an air of polish and suavity that would make Susan’s falling for him believable. At this, Conte was perfect. Conte was a handsome man at the time and he could easily convey the smoothness needed to make Brown understandably attractive. Yet something about his eyes tells you than this man is also dangerous and perhaps ruthlessly so when cornered.
Image Entertainment’s DVD of The Big Combo delivers a great transfer of the film. Sure there’s some age-related speckling from time to time, but generally the image is luminous with clear, clean whites and deep, inky blacks that render Lewis’ visual stylings faithfully. There’s often little shadow detail, but that’s how the film was shot. The few daytime sequences where shadow detail was intended are faithfully rendered by the DVD. There are some difficult fog sequences at the airport during which there is some evidence of grain. On the whole, this is a very fine looking DVD effort for some difficult material. The sound is the original mono and is reproduced clearly with no noticeable hiss or noise to speak of.
If it’s Image, this must be no-supplement day, and so it is. We get 16 scene selections and that’s it — no trailer, no production notes nor cast and crew information. Image has been doing a great service in getting a lot of this sort of classic material out on DVD. I just wish it would go the extra step and give the films the full treatment they deserve. If there’s some good reason that constrains them from doing so, why not tell us so that we (or at least I) don’t have to keep harping on this.
The Big Combo is top-notch film noir and highly recommended entertainment. It’s a wonderfully directed film — with urgency and visual panache. Image’s DVD conveys the film in the best possible light, barring a full-blown restoration which is unlikely. Recommended.