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As access to his work has increased, director Joseph H. Lewis has become recognized as a maker of superior genre films. His delirious killers-on-the-run tale Gun Crazy is now a list-topper for fans of film noir, and the superlative My Name Is Julia Ross is no longer a favorite seen by only a few die-hard aficionados. Near the top of the list of Lewis's achievements is 1955's The Big Combo , an amazing job of expressive direction. Working in harmony with his ambitious star Cornel Wilde, "Wagon Wheel Joe" creates an absorbing crime tale with psychological overtones. Although not an exercise in minimalism, the film's most memorable moments appear to occur in a B&W "pulp universe" devoid of detail. John Alton's cinematography uses raw light to set the scene and express the inner torment of the characters.
Other (predominantly) '50s crime directors like the gutsy Phil Karlson may have been more consistent, but Joseph H. Lewis was the stylist who wowed the French critics. The Big Combo appeared at the waning end of a noir cycle that had already mutated into police dramas filmed in a semi-realistic television style, as best typified (and transcended) in Don Siegel's The Lineup. Lewis's Gun Crazy was noted for its blacklisted author, Dalton Trumbo. Prolific writer/producer/dealmaker Philip Yordan often fronted for blacklisted writers, and may have spliced together the work of more than one writer into some scripts and put his name on the result. In this case he receives such strong billing that the screenplay may be entirely his own work.
Every scene in The Big Combo resembles a graphic illustration from the cover of a vintage crime paperback. The efforts of Detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) to bring down mob kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) are so extreme as to border on obsession. Leonard is equally compelled to win the affections of Brown's unstable girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace). The classy blonde's physical attraction to the dynamic, aggressive Brown borders on sex addiction; she has abandoned her career as a pianist and stays with Brown despite suspecting him of terrible crimes. After his superiors reprimand him for overspending, Diamond threatens and cajoles previous Brown associates in search information about Brown's first wife, who may have been murdered. But Brown's hit men Fante & Mingo (Lee van Cleef & Earl Holliman) remove potential witnesses faster than Diamond can uncover them. Caught in the middle, Susan attempts suicide. Brown retaliates by setting his executioners on the scent of Diamond himself, which puts the detective's sometime girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton) in jeopardy. Diamond needs Susan's trust if he is to force a confrontation with his underworld nemesis.
Take a step back from The Big Combo and its storyline is almost generic: the all-important difference is its fascinating style. There are plenty of 'normal' scenes, but at least half of the action is set in darkened corridors and rooms where little is visible beyond the actors. The genius behind Combo's stunning look is the legendary cameraman John Alton, whose career ranged from MGM's glossy musical An American in Paris to the early crime films of Anthony Mann. The "pure light and dark" of Alton's lighting creates much of the film's drama. Val Lewton's RKO film unit famously introduced the idea of suggesting menace instead of showing it directly, but Alton helps Lewis suggest entire settings without showing them. John Alton has a knack for using highly stylized pools of illumination and weird light sources, yet still maintaining a semi-realistic frame of reference.
The underworld pictured is never abstract, but its effects are tangible. While fleeing her sinister guardians Fante & Mingo at a boxing arena, Susan dashes through a series of stark spotlights that emphasize her figure and bare shoulders. When the hoodlums finally catch up with her in medium-shot, Alton's selective lighting makes the breathless Susan look naked, held between them. Actors clearly had to hit their marks in this picture. In the darker setups a human figure can't walk three paces without passing through three different lighting setups. Yet the lighting never sticks out as ostentatious -- we instead feel the dramatic effect Alton is creating.
Writers love The Big Combo because it exemplifies the visual extremes of film noir, which is actually a style and not a genre. Like Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy, it is a key exemplar of a key theme of noir, an erotic obsession so powerful that it dominates everything. Lieutenant Diamond is a plainly sick man, and his pathological pursuit of the criminal villain is motivated more by sheer hatred and jealousy than any notion of law and order. Bad guy Mr. Brown spouts tough dialog. His favorite expression is, "First is first and second is nobody!," a mantra that he seeks to embody. Brown browbeats everyone in the cast, yet it is clear that his love for the suicidal trophy-trollop Susan is more tender than anything Diamond has to offer. The unyielding, humorless Diamond is just as callous than his nemesis, as seen when he thoughtlessly allows his faithful girlfriend to walk unknowingly into danger. Diamond's so-called growing love for Susan plays like possessive harassment; he shows far less fondness for her than does her 'tormentor' Brown.
Genre critics in search of gay elements in films pounced on the sexuality of the film's Fante and Mingo. The strangely sympathetic hit men share The Big Combo's only healthy relationship. They sleep in the same room, are considerate and thoughtful toward one another and remain faithful unto death. As characters they only enter the action when Brown needs another killing done. While hiding out after a killing, their dialogue is a giveaway: "The cops will be looking for us in every closet!" They must be at least a partial inspiration for the harmonious relationship between the similar ax-men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson of Pulp Fiction.
The cop-and-robber doppelgänger motif so baldly peddled in Michael Mann's Heat is given a more sophisticated workout here. Diamond and Brown are rivals for Susan and pitted against one another on a fundamental level. Since The Law is the least of their concerns, their struggle seems almost to be a clash of conflicting lifestyles. Diamond spouts a lot of high-handed moralizing but everyone else accepts the fact that society is full of Brown-like corruption. Even some of the police consider Diamond's crusade to be an unwelcome disruption of the status quo. Thematically, The Big Combo more modern than the (otherwise superb) retro and slightly hollow Heat.
The movie is really about personal power, as is seen in the way the hoodlums in Mr. Brown's Big Combo accept the pecking order. Fante & Mingo are loyal to Mr. Brown, wavering only when the washed-up mobster Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) gives them conflicting orders. To be First Mr. Brown must ruthlessly dominate all around him. He enjoys toying with Lt. Diamond and McClure, mocking their relative impotence.
Combo is a pared-down film done on an Allied Artists non-budget. The actors are cast to type, without a lot of time or attention devoted to the finer points of direction -- this is no Nick Ray method showcase, yet Lewis gets exactly the performances he needs. The acting honors go to Richard Conte, whose Brown is the most dimensional character on screen. Conte's noir successes with Robert Siodmak and Jules Dassin back in his late '40s heyday more than prepared him for this outing. A couple of years later, Conte would excel as the virtuous but deeply compromised hero of The Brothers Rico, an existential nightmare that's as bleak as they come.
Starting as an Olympic fencer, Cornel Wilde wowed fans as a more beautiful Victor Mature with an even narrower acting range. He was once cruelly described as 'cheerfully inexpressive', and as he turned to directing genre work his persona became grim and unyielding. The Big Combo is one of his best pictures. Jean Wallace and Wilde enjoyed a long Hollywood marriage after his earlier matrimonial flops and her publicized suicide attempts. They were together until the end and worked together often, even playing Lancelot and Guinevere opposite one another in Sword of Lancelot. She didn't appear in Wilde's one masterpiece, The Naked Prey but shows up in his confused, under-funded Beach Red and the awkward, preachy No Blade of Grass. The stunning Ms. Wallace projects a specific, potent blend of sexual instability. Alton's camera objectifies her even as it concentrates on her anguished vulnerability. In a scene that cannot possibly have gone unnoticed in 1955, the blonde Susan Lowell stands at attention, clearly aroused, as Mr. Brown ends his caresses by sliding down her body and out of frame. It's one of the most erotic moments in '50s noir.
Lee Van Cleef and a convincingly domestic Earl Holliman are perfect as the hit men; hidden in the cast are Helen Walker, previously the ice-cold vixen of Nightmare Alley, and the always-excellent Ted de Corsia, from The Naked City and The Killing. Veteran actor Brian Donlevy's character is a colorless stock baddie but he gets a now-famous farewell scene involving a hearing aid. A jarringly unique execution scene is almost universally credited to director Lewis, when it probably originated in the script.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Big Combo is a stunning HD transfer at a proper widescreen aspect ratio, and looks far better than the weak videos and flat 16mm prints that once circulated. Quite a few white speckles crop up near reel changes, along with more bits of dirt than we expect, but the transfer reflects the fine qualities of John Alton's cinematography. Jean Wallace seems to glow, as if her blonde hair were lit from within; the atmospheric chiaroscuro setups are really impressive. One early shot of Diamond's assistant Sam Hill (Jay Adler) at a boxing ring concession stand looks exactly like something from the brush of Edward Hopper.
As is the norm, Olive's disc has no extras. But disc collectors should be happy to have such exotic movies available in the Hi-def Blu-ray format. I just feel sorry for the deaf and hearing impaired, who are missing out on many of today's most exciting home video releases.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Combo Blu-ray rates:
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