released Feb 5, 1955 by Allied Artists
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy 1950, My Name is Julia Ross 1945 , So Dark the Night 1946) Screenplay by Philip Jordan, Director of photography John Alton who’s haunting chiaroscuro and noir figures in silhouette fill out the landscape of entrapment, corruption and decadence.
From Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror by Bruce Crowthers
In The Big Combo (1955)“Alton’s dazzling black and white photography starkly counterpoints the film’s perverse sexuality which constantly strains against the limitations of the Hollywood code. Whether exploring the sado-masochistic violence of the hoodlums, two of whom, Fante and Mingo are clearly homosexual or the psycho-sexual domination wielded by gang boss, Brown over the young woman from the right side of the tracks, the scripts and the director’s needs are continually and effectively fulfilled by Alton’s camera.”
Stars Cornel Wilde as Leonard Diamond, Jean Wallace (Jigsaw 1949, The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1950, Storm Fear 1955) as Susan Lowell, Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key 1942, Impact 1949, The Quatermass Xperiment 1955, A Cry in the Night 1956) as McClure, Richard Conte (The Blue Gardenia 1943, Cry of the City 1948, Thieves’ Highway 1949, Whirlpool 1949, Oceans 11 (1960), Tony Rome 1967, Lady in Cement 1968) as Mr. Brown, Lee Van Cleef as Fante and Earl Holliman as Mingo, Robert Middleton as Peterson, Helen Walker as Alicia, Jay Adler as Sam Hill, John Hoyt as Dreyer, Ted De Corsia as Bettini, Helene Stanton as Rita.
Joseph H. Lewis from Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia by Wheeler Winston Dixon-
Lewis abandoned westerns and began a “frenzied round of freelancing that took him from Poverty Row to the majors, with such films as the disquieting horror Universal film The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and the astonishing Secrets of a Coed aka The Silent Witness 1942 for PRC.”
The Big Combo is considered a ‘syndicate’ film noir, where a mob organization is running the urban landscape, in which the organization is ‘all’ but with a difference. According to writer/historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, director Lewis was an “eccentric and he depicts a universe that is as out of kilter as his often imbalanced camera set-ups; the camera sweeps in on the protagonists in their most intimate moments, frames them as silhouettes in wide shots that effectively use fog and a few shadows to disguise the fact that seem to entrap his characters in even tighter compositions.”
At the police station, booked on a phony charge just to harass Brown. Joe McClure-“Mr. Brown is a very reasonable man. You don’t know him.” Leonard Diamond “Oh, is he? Well I’m not. I intend to make life very difficult for you Mr. Brown.”
Joe McClure-“You shouldn’t talk like that, Lieutenant. You’re overstepping your authority.” Mr. Brown-“Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotel make better money than that. Don’t you see, Joe? He’s a righteous man.”
From FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF THE SCREEN BY FOSTER HIRSCH
“One of the eroding factors in the fifties thrillers surfaced in such films as the Big Combo and The Phenix City Story where crime no longer springs from the aberrant individual but is instead a corporate enterprise, run like a business. (Or like Murder Inc.) This view of crime is widespread, almost communal undertaking, counters the traditional noir interest in the isolated criminal whose actions are controlled not by an impersonal conglomerate but by a complex interweaving of character and fate.” Hirsch also points out that it represents another level of decadence.
From The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller-“This gray area between old-school hoodlum and the new “organization man” was fertile turf for noir fables…)… in The Big Combo the gangster picture is distilled into a sexual battle between the saturnine, sensual Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) and dogged but frustrated flatfoot Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) Both men covet the appetizing Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), whom Diamond has been stalking for months as part of his investigation of Brown’s illegal Combination.”
I have read that Chiaroscuro is director Lewis’ domain and that he also liked to use icy blondes the way Alfred Hitchcock did. In Gun Crazy (1950) Lewis had Peggy Cummins, and in The Big Combo it is Jean Wallace, yet Lewis’ women are more overtly ‘sex-kittenish than high-class blondes.- From Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward
Cornel Wilde does a blunt job playing a righteous cop, Leonard Diamond who will do anything to take down Mr. Brown who represents everything he detests in the world.
“I know his name. The name of a man who will pick up a phone and call Chicago and New Orleans and say “Hey Bill, Joe is coming down for the weekend. Advance him fifty thousand,” and he hangs up the phone and the money’s advanced, protection money. A new all-night bar opens, with gambling outside city limits. A bunch of high school kids come in for a good time. They get loaded, they get irresponsible, they lose their shirts. Then they get a gun, cause they’re worried, they want to make up their losses. And a filling station attendant is dead with a bullet in his liver. I have to see four kids on trial for first-degree murder. Look at it. First-degree murder, because a certain Mr. Brown picked up a phone.”
Robert Middleton who happens to be one of my favorite underrated character actors plays Diamond’s boss, Police Lt.Peterson, who’s trying to convince Diamond not to pursue Brown through his girlfriend Susan Lowell and realizes that after tailing her for months, Diamond might have developed feelings for her. “You’re a cop, Leonard. There are 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.”
Richard Conte is particularly more brutal as Mr. Brown than in some of his other portrayals of the embodiment of the crime aesthetic, possessing the essential flair of the well-heeled mobster. The Big Combo is one of the most bleak and perverse of all the mid-1950s film noirs. The pace of the film leaves us hanging in a world of perpetual threat and vexation.
Richard Conte infuses the role of Mr. Brown with an unusual intensity even for the enduring tough-guy Conte as he plays a ruthless mob boss who practically holds a society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) hostage by their odd attraction for each other. Susan has left a budding career as a pianist to be a trophy in Brown’s collections, seduced by his control, and the money he lavishes on her, yet ambivalent about her self-loathing and her attraction to his perverse power over her body and their sexual relationship. In a potent scene, he takes Susan to a secret room in her apartment filled with a hidden stash of money and ammunition. Brown to Susan- “This is my bank… we don’t take checks, we deal strictly in cash. There isn’t anybody I’d trust with so much temptation–except myself. Or maybe you.”
Mr. Brown- “Where’d you get that outfit?” Susan Lowell “What’s wrong with it?” Mr. Brown-“I like you better in white. You’ve got a dozen white dresses. Why don’t you wear them? “ Susan Lowell-“White doesn’t please me anymore.” Mr. Brown –“A woman dresses for a man. You dress for me. Go put on something white!”
Brown employs his two exploitable goons Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) to stay close to Susan and watch her every move, acting as unwanted bodyguards.
Brown’s far-flung organization is under attack by the overzealous hard-boiled detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is determined to bring Brown to justice. All of Mr. Brown’s associates are figures marginalized by society in some way, all defined by their ‘difference.’ Brown gets his kicks pointing out what everyone else around him lacks while he pats himself on the back like a sadistic narcissist.
The film opens with Susan fleeing a boxing match, pursued by Mr. Brown’s two hired muscle heads, through dark alleys until she is finally caught by Brown, which only symbolizes his sexual dominance over her.
“It was for her I began to work my way up. All I had was guts. I traded them for money and influence. I get respect from everybody but her…”- Mr. Brown
Brown is so fixated on displays of dominance and strength that he fires his boxer after he loses his bout. First, he uses the opportunity to belittle his deputy McClure (Brian Donlevy) in front of the young boxer then he smacks Benny across his swollen bloody face waiting for his retaliation, but when it’s obvious the boy won’t hit him back, he cuts him loose.
Brown talking to Benny after the bout- “So you lost. Next time you’ll win. I’ll show you how. Take a look at Joe McClure here. He used to be my boss, now I’m his. What’s the difference between me and him? We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it!”
[yelling into McClure’s sound magnifier that is in his ear]
“We eat the same steak, drink the same bourbon. Look–same manicure, cuff-links. But we don’t get the same girls. Why? Because women know the difference. They got instinct. First is first and second is nobody… Now, Benny, who runs the world? Do you have any idea?” Bennie Smith “Not me, Mr. Brown.” Mr. Brown “That’s right, not you, but a funny thing, they’re not so much different from you, but they’ve got something. They’ve got it, and they use it. I’ve got it; [pointing to McClure] he hasn’t. What is it, Benny? What makes the difference…? Hate! Hate is the word, Benny! Hate the man that tries to beat you. Kill ’em, Benny! Kill ’em! Hate him till you see red, and you’ll come out winning the big money, and the girls will come tumblin’ after. You’ll have to shut off the phone and lock the door to get a night’s rest.”
Brown lectures Benny- “You should have hit me back. You haven’t got the hate. Tear up Benny’s contract. He’s no good to me anymore.”
Brown cuts his fighter-Benny loose, telling him he just doesn’t have the killer instinct he needs. Brown is a narcissistic bully whose smooth philosophical meanderings taunt the people who work for him, women, and even the cop who is right on his heels.
Brown’s two brawny side-kicks Fante and Mingo are obviously homosexual lovers, who thrive on violence as an enhancement to their sexual arousal like foreplay. Brown’s former boss, the weakened and inadequate McClure must rely on a clunky portable radio-sized hearing aid in order to keep up with the gang’s activities.
Lt. Diamond goes after the psychotic megalomaniac Mr. Brown trying to shut down his crime organization. There is conflict already within the organization as Brown is demeaning to McClure and verbally bates him constantly with put-downs, to try and get a rise out of him. McClure wants to get rid of Brown all together and take over as head of the mob once again, but in the end, he is too impotent, to smack down Brown’s power.
Brown has a prized possession —his beautiful blonde girlfriend Susan who is watched over every minute of the day by his two thugs Fante and Mingo. When Susan finally has a breakdown and overdoses on sleeping pills as a way out, she finally asks Diamond for help.
First Diamond wants to expose Brown’s criminal organization and secondly, it would give him great satisfaction to take Susan away from Brown, as he also has developed feelings for her.
When Diamond harasses Brown by arresting him on false charges just to bring him into the station –he goes on a mission to persecute Brown, who retaliates as his credo is “First is first and second is nobody” Brown puts a contract out on Diamond, who is then kidnapped by his two vicious flunky’s Fante and Mingo who are in a surreptitious relationship, with each other Mingo showing his sexual attraction and love for Fante in a rather covert yet palpable way. Though toward the end, while they’re hiding out, he does make mention that he’s sick of Salami. A thought, make of it what you will!
In a shocking scene Fante and Mingo torture Diamond, it is particularly brutal and vicious as they use McClure’s hearing aid turned up to full volume amplifying sound to the point it could blow his ear drums out. The pain on Diamond’s face is tangible. Then they begin pouring alcohol down his throat poisoning him, leaving him to appear as if he’s been off on a bender, thank god his boss Peterson (Robert Middleton) is there to help Diamond recover.
Mr. Brown-“I think Mr. Diamond needs a drink. Got any liquor?” Fante-” How about some paint thinner?” Mr. Brown-“No, that’ll kill him. Anything else?” Fante- “Hair tonic, 40% alcohol.” Mr.Brown-“Fine.”
Once he recovers from his torture, Diamond is even more determined to bring Brown down. Diamond starts to put the pieces together and find clues that point to Brown’s involvement in the murder of a racket boss who disappeared a while ago, and whose place he took over in the organization. He discovers some of Brown’s old associates, Dreyer (John Hoyt) an Austrian who runs an antique and import business, and Bettini (Ted De Corsia)a nice Italian man who owned a pizza parlor in the city and is now hiding out, fearing for his life.
Fante and Mingo go to Diamond’s hotel room intending to kill him and wind up murdering his sometime lover night club singer Rita who went there to surprise him with a date but becomes an unfortunate casualty being at the right place at the wrong time she is caught in the fray. Even Rita had laid things out for Diamond about the reasons why Susan would stay with a creep like Brown- “Women don’t care how a man makes his living, only how he makes love.”
After Diamond finds Rita’s body gunned down in his apartment- “She came to see me in her best shoes!” I treated her like a pair of gloves. I was cold… I called her up.”
Brown tries to school Diamond in the ways of the world, “You’d like to be me… You’d like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You think it’s the money. It’s not–it’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop. Slow. Steady. Intelligent. With a bad temper and a gun under your arm. With a big yen for a girl, you can’t have. First is first and second is nobody.
Brown- “You’re a little man with a soft job and good pay. Stop thinking about what might have been and who knows–you may live to die in bed.”
Brown starts to get paranoid and panicky, getting rid of McClure who is a weak link in the mob, and then his two henchmen who know too much about his double dealings and can be linked to McClure’s murder. Adding to Brown’s worries, his ex-wife Alicia (Helen Walker) comes back into the picture after hiding out in a sanitarium aiding Diamond in Brown’s capture. Ultimately leading to a showdown at an airplane hangar where Diamond corners Brown. Alicia “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane… and dead.”
When McClure tries to double-cross Brown by using his own thugs against him, Fante and Mingo pretend to go along and wind up turning their machine guns on him instead, while Brown sardonically watches grinning like the sadist he is. With a flair of evil embellishment, Brown walks over to McClure who has two machine guns trained on him, and takes out his hearing aid. Brown-“I‘m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it, so you don’t hear the bullets.” It is a stunning scene we are watching from McClure’s perspective the flashing lights and smokey tendrils from the gunfire happen at us, but it is all done in eerie quiet and darkness. We are experiencing the frightening moment when he is shot to death. We become McClure at that moment.
Later Brown wants to dispose of his two thugs so there is no evidence of murder, he hands them a package while they are hiding out in an old building in the basement that used to be a speakeasy, They think the package is filled with food, guns and their share of the money they heisted from the bank, but it’s filled with dynamite. As the two men are blown up, leaving Mingo alive for a brief moment just enough to give a deathbed confession to exact revenge for his lover’s death and point the finger at Brown.
Richard Conte is icily ruthless as the film’s antagonist, Mr. Brown who is not known by any other name, signifying an enigmatic symbolism for abject violence and immorality. As Dickos states “his imaginative brutality, Lewis bridges violence to the audience’s darker, vicarious desire to see pain inflicted on the screen”
There is a sense of noir fatalism and an underlying current of deviant and provocative sexual appetite within The Big Combo. Much of the violence is influenced by a strong element of sadism. The relationship between Susan and Brown is structured by fatalism, as she is sullen and submissive to his neurotic controlling fixation, while she wants to escape she shows no strength or determination other than to give in to it. Brown is obsessed with Susan as an object, preoccupied with her body. This is illustrated in one scene where he devours her with studied kisses, worships her , and objectifies her with salacious flattery in a way that perversely brings her to ecstasy. It might be this odd sexual attraction to Brown that keeps her passive to his controlling behavior toward her.
From Film Noir Encyclopedia: Edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward
“The Homosexuality of Mingo and Fante is smothered in an atmosphere of murder and sadistic torture , as they refine the conventions of violence into a sexual ritual. Joseph H. Lewis’s direction strongly points to a crude sexual bias throughout the film. Even Diamond appears to be sexually frustrated and compensating for impotence. Much in the same way as Lewis’s classic Gun Crazy, there is an affinity between sex and violence.; and the exploration of futility presents an ambience strangely reminiscent of an earlier period of noir films, such as Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window. These attitude combine with John Alton’s photography to create a wholly defined film noir, as striking contrasts between the black and white photography and Lewis’s sexual overtones isolate The Big Combo’s characters in a dark, insular universe of unspoken repression and graphic violence.” -Carl Macek
From Street With No Name by Andrew Dickos
“The Homoerotic violence in the Mingo-Fante relationship, unencumbered by misguided sociological sentiments, is still stereotyped psycho-sexuality —offensive enough on another score—but it is raw and consistent with the noir world. The privilege of noir cinema, as distinguished from other genres, lies in the latitude these films were permitted in exploring sexual power and its ambiguity, and the reason is apparent; as the cautionary cinema of the great negation of a “healthy’ puritanical American vision, the film noir almost mandates a depiction, however perverse, of those repressed impulses reigning hand-in hand with the anarchy that drives its protagonists to violence and paranoia. Unrepressed sexuality alongside these characteristics is far too messy to contain, so it must be vanquished. When it is particularly threatening, one may be sure that there is a woman involved.”
Lewis’s The Big Combo- “where it becomes almost pornographic to see Susan Lowell hopelessly submit to what is surely suggested to be an act of oral sex performed by her crime-lord boyfriend, Mr. Brown. But Lewis is no pornographer, he is a sensualist in the most serious way. No other works in American film until the 1960s broached the acknowledgment of these carnal hungers as a life-enhancing dimension of dangerous living—indeed, in living a short, intense life unto quick death.”
Both Lewis’ film noir masterpieces Gun Crazy and The Big Combo are sexually defined by the discursive violence of the external world—so much a corollary for the violence of passion that Lewis and screenwriter Philip Jordan can barely mask the story of The Big Combo as merely another sensational example of the extent to which organized crime corrupted postwar American Life.