The Big Combo (1955)

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, written by Philip Jordan

Harboring a secret love for the gorgeous Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), girlfriend of the ruthless gangster Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), policeman Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) obsessively pursues his unpopular investigation into the gangster as the body count rises. Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman offer excellent support as henchmen.

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The film is quintessential noir in nearly every way, missing only a femme fatale. The acting is spot on all around, but Conte’s portrayal of Mr. Brown is a highlight with a smart, enthusiastic and unapologetic viciousness.

“Now Benny, who runs the world? Have you any idea?”
“Not me, Mr. Brown.”
“That’s right. Not you. But a funny thing: they’re not so much different from you. But they’ve got something. They’ve got it and they use it. I’ve got it and he hasn’t. What is it, Benny? What makes the difference? Hate. Hate is the way, Benny. Hate the man who tries to beat you. Kill him, Benny, kill him! Hate him until you see red, and you’ll come out winning the big money. And the girls will come tumbling after.”

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The music is good, and the writing bears special mention. Numerous mini-speeches permeate the film and stand out like the above, with even minor characters getting a lot of love from the script. Another favorite is when the police lieutenant visits an old associate of the gangster boss, offering protection from the murderer, when he’s met with the following response:

“Mr. Diamond, I was a seaman for 30 years. I went to sea aged 14. I’ve seen storms. I’ve seen gunfire. I’ve seen torpedoes. I’ve been wrecked; not once, four times. On a raft, 37 days nothing but water. Nothing kills me. I’ll die in Stockholm like my great-grandfather, aged 93. I’m not scared of anyone, including you. So get out.”

Visually the film merits special attention as well. On a few separate occasions characters appear and disappear from shots by mixtures of light, fog and darkness in disquieting ways. There’s a fantastic tracking shot in the film, impossible to capture except in real time, of two men in a dark warehouse. A flicker of fire from the shadows barely illuminates the face of a third man in the background as he lights a cigarette, followed by two gangsters materializing from the darkness as they approach the two in focus. Its an incredible shot, almost demonic, and likely influenced the nearly supernatural appearance of the killers in dusters in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West.

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The Big Combo is a standout film, encapsulating the spirit of noir nearly perfectly with its murder, torture, obsession and ego, and it joins the list of favorites.

5- stars

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