Film Noir Classics: THE BIG COMBO
The sounds of upbeat jazzy music by composer David Raksin in the opening credits of Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955) lead straight into a footchase though the back area of a boxing arena cloaked in darkness. Two men, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) are out to stop a woman from leaving the fight. This blonde dame is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) the “property” of a shady underworld crime boss named Mr. Brown (Richard Conte).
Every villain has to have his foe and for Brown its Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornell Wilde) a guy who has tried to put him away but no solid proof to make his case stick, only what he knows about the guy himself which is a lot. It’s clear that Lt. Diamond is every bit obsessed with Susan as he is with getting Mr. Brown locked up. Although Susan is Brown’s trophy she doesn’t share his feelings of love and is being held against her will. She constantly uses any excuse to get away from Fante and Mingo who guard her 24/7.
Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown is a shrewd, quick talker who, among other ventures, has stakes in the sport of boxing. We get to witness his inspirational methods with one of his fighters after he’s just lost a fight. Brown just slaps the palooka then tells him he’s too weak and that he’s finished.
Susan falls ill and is hospitalized causing Diamond and Brown to have an encounter where they let each other know where the other stands. Diamond is clearly intent on stopping Brown at any cost while Brown taunts Diamond as being proud but just an underpaid flatfoot who wants to matter by making a name for himself. Diamond talks to Susan and realizes she’s not ill but that she attempted suicide just to get away from Brown showing just how desperate she’s become.
Diamond suspects Brown of murder (among other things) but is only able to bring him in for a petty crime. During an interrogation, Diamond gives him a lie detector test to find out about a clue he’s obtained regarding a mysterious woman connected to Brown named “Alicia”. Unfortunately, the test is a bust and Diamond is informed Brown has ties to the higher ups in the local government which puts the lock on the case for the time being.
On a short break from the hullabaloo, Diamond meets up with his girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton), a sexy showgirl. Rita also informs Diamond that its been going around that Brown’s men are out to get him but he doesn’t take it serious. After he leaves the club he’s jumped and knocked out by Fante and Mingo. When Diamond wakes up he’s in an undisclosed hideout, tied up. In a strange reversal of the interrogation he held previously, Brown plugs his henchman Joe McClure’s (Brian Donlevy) hearing aid in Diamond’s ear, cranks up the volume and yells into it. Then he forces Diamond to drink hair tonic (there’s oddly no real booze around) to get him loaded. Fante and Mingo proceed to drop him off at the apartment of his co-worker Capt. Peterson (Robert Middleton) with his gun on him so he’ll just appear to be on the job while drunk.
Diamond has one small lead that could help him find out who “Alicia” really is, a guy named Bettini (Ted De Corsia) one of Brown’s men who dissapeared years ago and was thought to be dead by many. Diamond finally tracks him down and Bettini gives him the backstory on Alicia, who it turns out was Brown’s wife and believed to have been drowned on a ship they were on in Sicily. Bettini points Diamond to the skipper of the ship, Nils Dreyer (John Hoyt), a Swedish man who owns a small antique shop in town. Diamond tries to find out about Dreyer’s purchase of an anchor for the ship that he thinks was used to drown Alicia but Dreyer stalls and leaves Diamond stumped. Immediately after Diamond leaves the shop, Dreyer’s phone rings and noone answers and he is then murdered outside. The next day Diamond and Peterson discover Dreyer’s store has been ransacked with Brown right there sitting in the center of the place sitting pretty after which he shows them the papers proving he owns the place.
With no evidence to get Brown and tired of losing the battle, Diamond goes for one thing he knows he can use to hurt him, Susan and he does this by persuading her to leave him (why she hasn’t already isn’t clear). He shows Susan a photo of Brown’s wife Alicia and asks Susan to inquire who she is to Brown as well. Susan follows the request and Brown admits Alicia is not dead but actually still alive and living in Sicily. In an interesting twist, we learn that Alicia was a woman that didn’t want Brown either and turned him away for a man named Grazzi.
In a show of his disrespect for anyone including police, Brown orders Fante and Mingo to hit Diamond at his apartment but the two mooks end up accidentally murdering Rita who was waiting for Diamond to return home. In an emotional scene, the murderous mistake causes Diamond to break down in grief and admit his guilt over how he carelessly mistreated her while they were together.
Diamond is able to obtain a second photo of Alicia and has the police lab do some research on it. Due to a small clue, they discover that she is in the United States not Sicily and he tracks her down. She is using the new name “Anna Lee Jackson” (Helen Walker) but Diamond knows that she adopted her new personality to forget and escape the fact that Brown had actually killed Grazzi the man she loved years earlier.
In one of the most memorable sequences straight out of a film noir highlight reel, Brown’s right hand man Joe is killed after he plots with Fante and Mingo to get rid of Brown. The confrontation takes place in a dark warehouse with a foglight slowly falling on the men. With the police out to get them for the murders of Dreyer, Rita and McClure, Fante and Mingo hideout in a prohibition era liquor storage. When Brown appears with a box of money for Fante and Mingo to live on until things cool down, they don’t realize it will be such an explosive amount.
The big finale brings to mind the last scene in the classic romance Casablanca (1942) as it takes place in a thick layer of fog with Brown and Susan waiting for a plane to arrive. The last shot of the movie is an especially striking noir image that will stick in your mind.
If you’re looking for a classic film noir with plenty of moxie, this one is a tough, dusky jewel featuring many scenes immersed in visually exuberant shadows and expressive lighting set up by film noir veteran DP John Alton who had previously worked on movies such as T-Men (1947), The Amazing Mr X (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike alot of standard noir stories there is no femme fatale character to be found in this yarn. I think Jean Wallace’s blonde haired siren Susan would be the obvious choice for that role and but she is instead playing an innocent with no real motivations for backstabbing or cork screwing the protagonist.
For the classic crime cinema fans the great Richard Conte should be a familiar face. That’s because he’s been in several classics of the genre ranging from film noirs like Whirlpool (1949) and The Sleeping City (1950) to 70s polizios like Il Boss (1973) to Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia classic The Godfather. He’s especially good at playing villains like Mr. Brown and is a standout performance in this film. Look for a neat secret vault where Brown stores all his dirty money and guns, a nice little touch.