The Big Combo

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The Big Combo
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoseph H. Lewis
Screenplay byPhilip Yordan
Produced bySidney Harmon
StarringCornel Wilde
Richard Conte
Brian Donlevy
Jean Wallace
CinematographyJohn Alton
Edited byRobert S. Eisen
Music byDavid Raksin
Color processBlack and white
Security Pictures
Theodora Productions
Distributed byAllied Artists Pictures
Release date
  • February 13, 1955 (1955-02-13)[1]
Running time
88 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Big Combo is a 1955 American crime film noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis, written by Philip Yordan and photographed by cinematographer John Alton, with music by David Raksin.[3] The film stars Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte and Brian Donlevy, as well as Jean Wallace, who was Wilde's wife at the time. The supporting cast features Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman and the final screen appearance of actress Helen Walker.

While the film's title cards feature a copyright claim, a notice was not properly filed, and in 2007 the United States Copyright Office ultimately rejected the notice.[4][5]


The film

Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is on a personal crusade to bring down the sadistic gangster Mr. Brown. He is 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, Bettini, that Alicia was actually Brown's wife. Bettini 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 and does not want to disclose anything to Diamond, but is nonetheless murdered by McClure shortly after leaving his shop later that day.

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, living with Grazzi.

Brown orders a hit on Diamond. However, when his gunmen Fante and Mingo go to Diamond's apartment, they mistakenly shoot and kill Diamond'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 did not 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.

Meanwhile, Brown's right-hand man, McClure, wants to take over. He plots with Fante and Mingo to ambush Mr. Brown, but they betray and murder him. McClure is dependent upon a hearing aid. Fante and Mingo dismantle it and machine gun McClure in pantomime silence, unable to hear his pleas for mercy.

At police headquarters, Brown shows up with a writ of habeas corpus, effectively preventing Alicia testifying against her husband. Brown also takes 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 of them.

Brown shoots Diamond's partner, Sam, and kidnaps Susan, planning to fly away to safety. However, Mingo survived the assassination attempt by Brown, and he confesses to Diamond that Brown was behind all the murders while sobbing over the body of his cohort. Alicia is able to help Diamond figure out that Brown took Susan to a private airport where he intends to board his getaway plane.

However, Brown's plane does not show up and the film climaxes in a foggy hangar shootout. Susan shines the fog lamp from Brown's car in his eyes, effectively blinding him, allowing Diamond to arrest him. 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.



Lee Van Cleef, Jean Wallace and Earl Holliman
Brian Donlevy in the film

The film was initially called The Hoodlum based on a story by Philip Yordan. It was originally going to be directed by Hugo Fregonese for producer Milton Sperling.[6] Sperling tried to cast Spencer Tracy for the lead.[7] The script was reportedly in great demand with Yordan apparently turning down offers of $75,000.[8]

Eventually the film was a co production between Theodora, the production company of Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace, and Security, a company of Phil Yordan and Sidney Harmon.[9] Wilde changed the title to "The Big Combination" and Jean Wallace suggested it be shortened to "The Big Combo".[10]

Jack Palance was originally cast opposite Wilde. Filming was brought forward to start September 7, because of studio space availability. Palance dropped out of the film, claiming he wanted a week off after finishing Victor Saville's The Silver Chalice (1954) with Virginia Mayo and Paul Newman in his first movie role. Another source says Palance was unhappy his wife was not cast in the second female lead.[11] He was replaced by Richard Conte. Conte's casting meant the start date for another film, Cry Vengeance, had to be pushed back.[12]

The film also marked the conclusion of Helen Walker's film career; she was consigned to a small role in The Big Combo.

The film was shot in 26 days.[2]


Critical response[edit]

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

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, one of his best,[13] and a jazz-derived score by David Raksin with solo piano by Jacob Gimpel are in keeping with the film's tough mood."[14]

More contemporary reviews of the movie are mostly positive.

In 2004 Chris Dashiell on the website CineScene found 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."[15]

Film critic Ed Gonzalez lauded the film in his 2006 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."[16]

A pair of late 20th century critics 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.[17]

In 2019 the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 93% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 13 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.00/10.[18]

Home media[edit]

The film was released on Blu-ray by Olive Films in 2013 with a restoration completed by UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Foundation.[19] A new HD restoration was completed in 2018 by Arrow Films in the UK.[20]


Most film noir movies feature scores that are orchestral, with strings. In contrast, The Big Combo is one of the few that have a score with brass and trumpets and with woodwinds and saxophones.[citation needed]
In a scene, pianist Jakob Gimpel (credited as Jacob Gimpel) appears playing Chopin's Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. In a previous one his performance of the same piece had been heard from a recording.

See also[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. ^ a b Scheuer, P. K. (Mar 13, 1955). "A TOWN CALLED HOLLYWOOD". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 166767985.
  3. ^ The Big Combo at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  4. ^ "U.S. Copyright Public Records System". Retrieved 2023-05-27.
  5. ^ "Code of Federal Regulations 37CFR201.7 | U.S. Copyright Office". Retrieved 2023-05-27.
  6. ^ Schallert, Edwin (Sep 16, 1953). "Warners, Metro Slate African Subjects; Jimmy Wakely Back in Cinema". Los Angeles Times. p. B9.
  7. ^ SCHALLERT, EDWIN (Oct 12, 1953). "Drama: 'Hannibal' Lurks as Big New Italian Undertaking; Phillip Terry Resuming". Los Angeles Times. p. B9.
  8. ^ Schallert, Edwin (23 June 1954). "'Big Combo' Will Star Cornel Wilde; Vanessa Brown Debates Musical". Los Angeles Times. p. B7.
  9. ^ THOMAS M. PRYOR Special to The New York Times.22 June 1954. "PALLADIUM STARS SOUGHT FOR MOVIE: History of Famous London Music Hall Would Include American Entertainers". p. 24.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ HEDDA HOPPER (July 9, 1954). "Jean Wallace to Act Opposite Her Husband". Los Angeles Times. p. B6.
  11. ^ "MOVIELAND BRIEFS". Los Angeles Times. Sep 1, 1954. p. 21.
  12. ^ THOMAS M. PRYOR (Sep 1, 1954). "PALANCE LEAVES 'BIG COMBO' FILM: Richard Conte Will Replace Actor in Co-Starring Role -- Prologue for '7 Year itch'". The New York Times. p. 32.
  13. ^ Kemp, Philip. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Vol 4: Writers and Production Artists, New York-London, 2000.
  14. ^ Variety. Staff film review, December 31, 1954. Last accessed: March 18, 2024.
  15. ^ CineScene film review, 2004.
  16. ^ Gonzalez, Ed. Slant Magazine, film review, May 5, 2006. Last accessed: February 23, 2008.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ The Big Combo at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: July 8, 2019.
  19. ^ "Olive Films to Release Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo". July 17, 2013. Archived from the original on May 27, 2023. Retrieved May 27, 2023.
  20. ^ "The Big Combo Blu-ray". Archived from the original on Jan 27, 2023. Retrieved May 27, 2023.

External links[edit]