Big Combo, The (1955)

“Brown’s not a man; he’s an organization.”

Big Combo Poster

A police detective (Cornel Wilde) pursues an elusive gangster (Richard Conte) whose terrified girlfriend (Jean Wallace) is afraid to leave him and whose loyal henchmen (Robert Middleton and Lee Van Cleef) protect him at every turn.


While B-director Joseph H. Lewis is best known for his stunning cult classic Gun Crazy (1949), this later outing provides further evidence of his unique cinematic genius. Despite being labeled “a sputtering, misguided antique” by the New York Times upon its release (!), it remains an exciting, visually gripping cat-and-mouse tale which completely belies its low budget. Indeed, while the performances (both lead and supporting) are top-notch, and Philip Yordan’s script is satisfyingly pulpy, it’s John Alton’s stunning noir-ish cinematography — utilizing high-contrast lighting, extreme angles, and shadowy fog — that really lingers in one’s memory of the film (see stills below). Also of note is the film’s (relatively) graphic presentation of sexuality, sadism, and homoerotic tensions; see TCM’s article for more details about how and why the film ran into trouble with Hollywood’s censorship police.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Conte as Mr. Brown
    Big Combo Conte
  • Jean Wallace as Susan Lowell
    Big Combo Wallace
  • Fine performances by supporting players — including Brian Donlevy as Joe McClure, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman as henchmen Fante and Mingo, and John Hoyt as Nils Dreyer
    Big Combo Van Cleef Middleton
    Big Combo Hoyt
  • John Alton’s stunning low-budget cinematography
    Big Combo Cinematography
  • Joseph Lewis’s fine direction
    Big Combo Direction2
  • Philip Yordan’s script

Must See?
Yes, as a most satisfying B-level flick. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.



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