You like crazy drums, Lieutenant? Have a good time.
My exposure to noir was limited to the most famous examples—Double Indemnity; In A Lonely Place, etc—before diving into Noirvember. I didn’t have Leonard’s familiarity with The Big Combo, for instance, which is famous enough that Joss Whedon borrowed the names of two henchmen for two minor characters in one of his properties, like he does. Rather than wince or posture, though, I approached The Big Combo with fresh, childlike eyes, and was suitably rewarded.
Jean Wallace plays Susan Lowell, the ingenue whose flight down a shadowy boxing arena hallway kicks the story in motion. She’s the kept girl of Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), a gangland boss so arrogant he uses his subordinates as object lessons in loser-dom while they’re within earshot. She’s grown despondent over her trapped life, but can’t break free, not while Mingo (Earl Holliman) and Fante (a young Lee van Cleef) are bodyguarding her.
She’s also being tailed at the orders of Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) of the 93rd Precinct. He suspects that she’s the key to landing an indictment against Brown. His captain rightly suspects that Diamond is secretly in love with her. Diamond won’t admit to it, but when he gets word that Susan’s tried to kill herself, he comes running.
As much as this is a product of its time—a story of driven men committing desperate acts—it’s also a showcase of law enforcement technology. Diamond cajoles Brown into a polygraph examination while in custody—not legally admissible, of course, but he seizes on the few spikes in blood pressure as leads to pursue further. Later, Diamond and other lab techs examine a blown-up photo, enhancing on the smallest detail, in a scene that any modern cop show viewer would recognize. Of course, the crooks have their gadgets, too, particularly the hearing aid of second banana Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), used to savage effect in two memorable scenes.
(Sidebar: I mentioned the effect of the studio system in producing work by a lot of familiar faces in a short timeframe. Brian Donlevy comes from Kiss of Death, a picture which Jean Wallace turned down. The Big Combo was written by Philip Yordan, who turned in a sharp script nine years earlier for Whistle Stop. Dive deep enough into the B-picture well and the same faces keep bobbing up)
We shouldn’t expect the film conventions of the 50s to age gracefully into the 10s, but even so, Lt. Diamond is a fairly brutal character. He sweats Susan while she’s recovering from her pill overdose, pressing her for detail on a clue she barely remembers. He later arrests Brown’s entire outfit—ninety-six hoodlums—on false warrants, earning no worse than a disappointed sneer from his captain. Later, he harasses a woman freshly liberated from a sanitarium upstate.
Diamond’s obsession with nailing Brown only works because Richard Conte has the time of his life playing him. He snaps off his pithy observations with relish, making every line a keeper. “Tell the man I’m gonna break him so fast, he won’t have time to change his pants.” He’s sneering and ruthless in all areas of his life—except with women, naturally. He obsesses over Susan, kissing his way down her body in a scene that must have given the censors fits in 1955. He believes that the best women will only go for the head guy—”women know the difference; they got instinct”—and that drives his narcissism.
The plot’s a bit flat. Diamond gets the clue that will break Brown open from Susan’s sickbed very early in the film, then spends the entire film pursuing it. There aren’t a great many twists, save for one interesting third act revelation about a character we thought was dead. Instead, we get setback after setback: Diamond gets ahead of a lead, only for Brown, Brown’s lawyers, or Brown’s gunmen to show up and quash it. More than once, Brown does something that I’d swear is illegal, even in the 50s, only for the cops to grouse about how clever he is to weasel out of it. And for all that Diamond insists Susan can break the case wide open, she’s ultimately inessential to the mystery’s resolution.
What makes The Big Combo a semi-precious stone in the noir horde is its cinematography. Directed by Joe Lewis (of Gun Crazy and The Undercover Man) and lensed by John Alton (of Bury Me Dead, Canon City, Mystery Street and He Walked by Night, which will be coming to Noirvember later). Under Alton’s eye, The Big Combo produced some of the most evocative shots of the genre, including the opening chase of Susan through a boxing arena and the final shot of two survivors walking into the foggy night. Noir is known more today for its style than its themes, and The Big Combo provides a template for the discerning director.