Big Combo, The (1955)

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

Big Combo Poster

Synopsis:
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 (Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef) protect him at every turn.

Genres:

Review:
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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One Response to “Big Combo, The (1955)”

  1. A no-brainer must-see – and one that works quite well on an occasional repeat viewing.

    The film opens with a stylish blonde being chased on foot by two men – what’s not to love already?! Especially when the men are two butch homosexuals! 😉

    Every single well-thought-out element of this film blends into what becomes an undeniable classic of its pulp form. For a film of its type, I’ve rarely come across a flick this perfectly realized. Sure, at its root, the story is the rather-familiar territory of bringing a hoodlum to justice. But the devil is in the details! There are quite a few fun twists in the space of 88 minutes and the excitement doesn’t really flag for a minute out of them.

    The film is particularly well-cast. Generally perceived as a somewhat-wooden actor, Wilde turns in a surprisingly strong (and even sympathetic) leading performance. I doubt I’ve ever seen him better than he is here. And director Lewis surrounds him with a top-notch cast: everyone is good (and sharp as tacks) here!

    Of odd note, however: two women who had very unusual personal lives. Check out (at IMDb) what went on off-screen with Wallace and the particularly unfortunate Helen Walker (here in her final film role).

    Though (of the two) I prefer Walker as an actor, Wallace has the more interesting role – it’s a character reminiscent of both Ingrid Bergman in ‘Notorious’ and Susan Harrison in ‘Sweet Smell of Success’: an innocent woman who is bright, probably even gutsy, but is nevertheless trapped; cornered into an existence that is the equivalent of wearing a strait-jacket.

    And what of the homosexuals? It’s no guessing game. Holliman and Van Cleef (in a real coup for 1955) are lovers. On the blatant side, Holliman at one point calls Van Cleef “honey” (he actually does) – and, on the strongly implied side, (at least) Donlevy seems to recognize them as a couple and is ok with it, even if he wants them to be tougher: “I’m gonna show you two guys how to be men!”

    To me, this flick is a real gem that should be better known. Special kudos indeed to DP Alton and composer David Raksin for his snazzy jazzy score.

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