The Big Combo

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The Big Combo
The Big Combo poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Produced by Sidney Harmon
Screenplay by Philip Yordan
Starring Cornel Wilde
Richard Conte
Brian Donlevy
Jean Wallace
Music by David Raksin
Cinematography John Alton
Edited by Robert S. Eisen
Production
company
Security Pictures
Theodora Productions
Distributed by Allied Artists
Release dates
  • March 1955 (1955-03)[1]
Running time 86 minutes[2]
Country United States
Language English

The Big Combo is a 1955 American film noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis and photographed by cinematographer John Alton, with music by David Raksin.[3]

Plot[edit]

Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is on a personal crusade to bring down sadistic gangster Mr. Brown. He's also dangerously obsessed with Brown's girlfriend, the suicidal Susan Lowell. His main objective as a detective is to uncover what happened to a woman called "Alicia" from the crime boss's past.

Mr. Brown, his second-in-command McClure and thugs Fante and Mingo kidnap and torture the lieutenant, then pour a bottle of alcohol-based hair tonic down his throat before letting him go. Diamond eventually learns through one of Brown's past accomplices that Alicia was actually Brown's wife. The accomplice suspects that Alicia was sent away to Sicily with former mob boss Grazzi, then murdered, tied to the boat's anchor and permanently submerged.

Diamond questions a Swede named Dreyer, who was the skipper of that boat (but now operates an antiques store as a front, bankrolled by Brown). Dreyer denies involvement, but this doesn't prevent him from being murdered by McClure within seconds after he leaves the shop.

Diamond tries to persuade Susan to leave Brown and admits he might be in love with her. He shows her a photo of Brown, Alicia and Grazzi together on the boat. Susan finally confronts Brown about his wife and is told she is still alive in Sicily, Italy, living with Grazzi.

Brown next orders a hit on Diamond. However, when his gunmen Fante and Mingo go to Diamond's apartment, they mistakenly shoot and kill the cop's burlesque dancer girlfriend Rita instead. Diamond sees an up-to-date photo of Alicia but realizes it wasn't taken in Sicily (since there's snow on the ground). This leads Diamond to suspect Brown didn't kill Alicia but his boss Grazzi instead. Diamond is able to track Alicia to a sanitarium, where she is staying under another name. He asks for her help.

Brown's right-hand man, McClure, wants to take over. He plots with Fante and Mingo to ambush Mr. Brown, but ends up getting killed himself because they are loyal to the boss.

At police headquarters, Brown shows up with a writ of habeas corpus, effectively preventing Alicia to testify against her husband. Brown also brings a big stash of "money" to Fante and Mingo while they are hiding out from the police, but the box turns out to contain a bomb that apparently kills both.

Brown shoots the lieutenant's partner Sam and kidnaps Susan, planning to fly away to safety. Diamond finds a witness that could finally nail the elusive gangster—Mingo, who survived the blast and confesses that Brown was behind it all. Alicia is able to help Diamond figure out where Brown was likely to take Susan, a private airport where Brown intends to board a getaway plane.

However, the plane doesn't show up and the film climaxes in a foggy airplane hangar shootout. Susan shines a bright light in Brown's eyes and the lieutenant places him under arrest. The last scene shows the silhouetted figures of Diamond and Susan in the fog, considered to be one of the iconic images of film noir.

Cast[edit]

Reception[edit]

Critical response[edit]

The iconic airport conclusion to the film demonstrates John Alton's cinematographic style

Reviews of the movie today are mostly positive. Chris Dashiell on the website CineScene finds the dialogue "run of the mill" but praises the film's director, writing that "Lewis had a remarkable ability to infuse poetry into the most banal material, and The Big Combo is one of his best efforts... it's not as startlingly inventive as Lewis's best film, Gun Crazy (1949), but it's a quality B-film, satisfying and dark."[4]

The staff at Variety magazine liked the film's direction, music and photography, despite "a rambling, not-too-credible plot." They wrote, "Performances are in keeping with the bare-knuckle direction by Joseph Lewis and, on that score, are good. Low-key photography by John Alton and a noisy, jazzy score by David Raksin with solo piano by Jacob Gimpel are in keeping with the film's tough mood."[5]

Film critic Ed Gonzalez lauded the film in his review, writing, "Shadows and lies are the stars of The Big Combo, a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented texture of a spider's web ... John Alton's lush camera work is so dominant here you wouldn't know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesn't have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the director's Gun Crazy, but that's no loss given this film's richer returns. The set-pieces are fierce, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallace's performance—a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil—is one of noir's great unheralded triumphs."[6]

Critics have compared the quality of The Big Combo to Fritz Lang's The Big Heat as one of the great film noir detective classics in terms of style.[7] It is also considered as one of the best work of legendary cinematographer John Alton.[8]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 91% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on eleven reviews.[9]

In popular culture[edit]

The twin brothers Fante and Mingo from the movie Serenity were named after the similar duo in The Big Combo.

Soundtrack[edit]

Most film noir movies feature scores that are orchestral (strings). In contrast, The Big Combo is one of few that has a brass (trumpets, saxophones, etc.) score.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Internet Movie Database and Turner Classic Movies state February 13, 1955 as the US release date. This date is most likely wrong: According to the index of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the film premiered on March 23, 1955 in Los Angeles, while The New York Times reviewed the film on March 26, 1955 as a "new feature at Palace".
  2. ^ The running time is "86 or 89" minutes according to Turner Classic Movies and 86 according to the index of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Only the Internet Movie Database lists the film with a shorter 84 minutes.
  3. ^ The Big Combo at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  4. ^ CineScene film review, 2004.
  5. ^ Variety. Staff film review, 1955 (no specific date given). Last accessed: June 5, 2012.
  6. ^ Gonzalez, Ed. Slant Magazine, film review, May 5, 2006. Last accessed: February 23, 2008.
  7. ^ Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, film noir analysis by Carl Macek, page 29. Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 3rd edition, 1992. ISBN 0-87951-479-5.
  8. ^ Kemp, Philip. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Vol 4: Writers and Production Artists, New York-London, 2000.
  9. ^ The Big Combo at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: February 23, 2008.

External links[edit]