Sexually and sadistically charged, The Big Combo is a paradigm for what can be accomplished with spare change filmmaking. This film, and the earlier work Gun Crazy (1950) are director Joseph H. Lewis’ masterpieces. While on the surface a straightforward cops and gangsters film, Lewis has created a world of brutally bold, off-beat characters filled with dark shadows and high contrast lighting, courtesy of the brilliance of the master noir cinematographer John Alton (T-Men, He Walked By Night, Raw Deal and The Crooked Way).
For the past six months Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) has stopped at nothing in going after the sadistic underworld thug Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). He has spent more than $18,000 of the department’s money stubbornly trying to get the goods on Brown and put him out of commission. Instead all he has accomplished is to get himself reprimanded by his Captain (Robert Middleton) for spending too much department time and money on a fruitless project. Brown is too powerful, the Captain explains, and has too many connections in high places. Also in the mix is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), an iceberg-cool blonde society girl gone bad. This wild child gets her kicks walking on the wild side, seduced by Brown’s sadistic, rough, crude style and his lavish lifestyle of money and sex. Diamond hopes to get to Brown through her, but only finds himself infatuated by the cool blonde beauty himself.
Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown is a smug, vicious, know-it-all killer whose most famous quote is “first is first and second is nothing.” He keeps telling Diamond he’s a “little man” making little money ($96.50 a week). Brown is ultra cool, dresses meticulously and cares for no one but himself. He also never lets former mob boss Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), now his right-hand man, forget that he’s nothing now, mercilessly reminding him he’s second…and second is nothing.
McClure wears a hearing aid which becomes significant in two of the film’s best known scenes. In the first, Diamond is kidnapped by two of Brown’s top henchmen, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman). Tired of Diamond doggedly coming after him, Brown is going to teach the cop a lesson. After they pour a bottle of hair tonic containing 40% alcohol down Diamond’s throat , he asks to borrow McClure’s hearing aid, then pushes it into the lawman’s ear. His two thugs turn up the volume on a radio, torturously blasting the music into Diamond’s ear and head. The second scene, later in the film, occurs when Brown finds out about Joe’s attempt to betray him. This time, instead of asking, Brown pulls McClure’s hearing aid out of his ear. Innovatively, the soundtrack goes silent simultaneously; we can only hear now what Joe can hear, nothing. Guns appears, McClure watches in fear, a quick cut to the guns blasting then back to McClure who is now dead, and silent as the soundtrack.
Tired of being confined and closely followed everywhere she goes by Brown’s henchmen, Susan attempts suicide, only to find herself in a hospital under police protection. Susan is interrogated by Diamond about Brown, who can only get her to murmur the name Alicia. Who Alicia is and what is her significance is are Diamond’s only clues. Soon Brown appears at the hospital to get Susan released and verbally spars with Diamond thanks to Yordan’s snappish dialogue.
“I want her released,” Brown demands.
“She’s under arrest Mr. Brown,” says Diamond.
“What’s the charge?”
“Ridiculous,” Brown states, “she wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“She tried to kill herself.”
“Is that a crime?”
“It happens to be against two laws,” Diamond says drily, “God’s and man’s; I’m booking her under the second.”
As written by Yordan and portrayed by Cornel Wilde, Diamond is a straight-laced, stoic cop, obsessive in both his pursuit to bring down Brown and in his desire for good girl-turned-bad Susan. However, like most straight, moral, overly righteous folks, there is a bit of a dark side to the Lt., he has a girl, Rita (Helene Stanton), who works as a stripper and who likes our cop hero. Rita knows she’s playing second fiddle to another woman but she’s stuck on the guy. One night when she is ready to leave his place, she tells him, “When she hurts you again, baby, don’t wait six months.”
The film drips with suggestive sex that was made slyly enough to get past the censors. At one point Richard Conte is nuzzling on Jean Wallace’s neck and then begins a slow trip southward, slowly moving down to her shoulder, continuing on down until he is out of frame, the camera staying focused on Wallace’s now orgasmic face. The suggestion of oral sex slid by the censors after director Joseph H. Lewis played naive, telling the production code board he never thought about where Conte was heading once he was below and out of frame. The scene did not get by Wilde, Wallace’s real life husband, who Lewis made sure was off the set the day the scene was filmed. When he later found out, Wilde was angered with Lewis for involving his wife in such a suggestive display. According to a Lewis interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Wilde never forgave him. Then there are the homosexual overtones between Fante and Mingo, including a scene where, after being offered a sandwich by Fante, Mingo says, “I couldn’t swallow any more salami.” Sophisticated audiences of the day would have picked up on the subtle suggestiveness of these scenes while more naive audiences, most likely, did not read between the lines and missed the subtext.
Richard Conte is appropriately nasty in his role as Mr. Brown, a man who trusts no one, eventually betraying even his two loyal henchmen, Fante and Mingo. Cornel Wilde is rather stiff as the dogged cop, but it fits the uptight character he is playing. Jean Wallace also seems a bit standoffish but again, the role of a snobby, cool, rich girl gone bad seems to work. Along with Brian Donlevy, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman and Helene Stanton, the supporting cast includes a colorful gallery of character actors like Robert Middleton, Jay Adler, Ted De Corsia and Whit Bissell.
The real stars of the film though are cult director Lewis and cinematographer John Alton, who combine their crafts to create a world filled with high contrast lighting and dark shadowy figures which helps to cover up the bare bone sets. Add to this David Raskin’s impressive score and you have a B-film masterpiece. The film was released in 1955 through Allied Artists, formerly Monogram Pictures, one of Poverty Row’s best-known entities.
John Greco has had a life-long fascination with cinema and photography. Raised in New York City, he is now living in Florida. For more information, visit Twenty Four Frames.