Ah, The Big Combo. What a great movie. Directed by Joseph Lewis (of Gun Crazy) with absolutely gorgeous black and white cinematography by John Alton (T-Men, Slightly Scarlet), this later entry crime-noir still manages to prove to be a disturbing and gripping thriller. Ahead of its time in many ways, it's an expertly paced thriller that does an amazing job of exploiting its veteran cast and ramping up the tension to remarkable heights.
The story follows a police detective named Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde of Constantine And The Cross) who is obsessed with bringing down a shifty mobster named Mr. Brown (Richard Conte of The Godfather Trilogy and the underrated Italian neo-noir Tony Arzenta). While at first it isn't immediately clear why he's so obsessed with putting Mr. Brown behind bars, it's soon revealed that it's related to his equally obsessive occupation with the gorgeous Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace, who was Corel Wilde's real life wife!), Mr. Brown's dame. Lowell is attracted to Brown not because he's a nice guy or because he treats her well, as this is definitely not the case in their relationship, but because of his considerable power.
When Diamond gets in trouble from his superior officers in the police department for going way over budget in his quest, Diamond decides to turn his case up a bit and he starts shaking down Brown's employees for information. He finds out that Brown may have been responsible for the death of his first wife and he hopes to use this information against him. Sadly for Diamond, Brown's two main thugs, Fante (the late, great Lee Van Cleef of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) and Mingo (Earl Holliman of Gunfight At The OK Corral), take the witnesses and stoolies out of the picture before Diamond can get much out of them.
Susan attempts to take her own life when she can't take the pressure anymore, and though she survives, this in turn causes Brown to set his sights on Diamond. He's more worried about the bad guys getting a hold of his occasional lady friend, Rita (Helene Stanton), a woman of loose morals. Once Diamond is able to convince Susan to help him out a little bit, he decides to move forward full throttle and force Brown to a final confrontation.
While the plot is pretty typical double crossing cat and mouse stuff, the movie has a mean streak running through it that really brings this one up a few notches. Having an interesting cast as it does really helps things a lot but there's this sense of evil that permeates the whole movie, affecting both the good guys and the bad guys, that makes The Big Combo more than just a typical crime noir. There are all manner of sexual innuendos in the script, and a surprisingly strong (for its time) torture scene as well making this movie pretty strong stuff by the standards of the day.
The fact that all of this occurs in some of the moodiest looking sets one can imagine ensures that the movie has a creepy effect to it that again suggests something sinister below the surface. Shadows and light play a huge role in the look of the film, and the lighting makes the low budget sets on which the film was shot look far more intimidating than they would have been if they had been lit without the shadows and contrasts in mind.
The cast all turn in great work here as well. Cornel Wilde is great as the leading man obsessed with bringing in his arch-foe, while Richard Conte does an excellent job as the heavy. Van Cleef and Holliman couldn't be better as the thugs, while Stanton and Wallace are not only easy on the eyes but completely convincing in their respective roles as well.
The Big Combo debuts on Blu-ray from Olive Films in a 1.78.1 widescreen transfer presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Past DVD releases have been fullframe but this widescreen framing looks good and while things are understandably tightened up at the top and bottom of the frame, nothing seems cropped. The increase in detail here is considerable and while some minor print damage is present in the form of some small scratches and specks, the source used for the transfer was, thankfully, in pretty nice shape. Grain is present throughout the presentation but it never gets so heavy as to distract from the generally solid detail and texture that the HD transfer offers. Close up shots fare the best, no surprise there, but even in the backgrounds we can pick up noticeably more detail where, say, a hat rests on a coat rack, the numbers are now legible on a pill bottle or you can read the posters plastered on buildings on a dark street. Imperfections are present here but by and large, things look great. Contrast is good, black levels two, and not a trace of edge enhancement or noise reduction to be found.
The English language DTS-HD Mono Audio track on the disc is pretty good. The score sounds big and brash and wonderful while dialogue stays crisp and clear. Levels are well balanced and there's as much depth as you could reasonably expect from an older low budget picture. Understandably the limitations of the source material do come through, as they should, but this is a clean track that suits the movie just fine and which doesn't suffer from any serious problems.
Outside of a static menu and chapter selection, there are no extra features on this disc.
The Big Combo has a great cast of B actors and no shortage of inferred sadism and perversion. The photography brings the sets and shadows to life creating a tense mood and a great look. The Blu-ray debut from Olive Films is a welcome one, easily trumping any of the public domain and budget DVD releases that the film has received over the years. It looks and sounds excellent and is an essential addition to any noir fan's Blu-ray collection even if it is a barebones release. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.