The Big Combo (1955) Joseph H. Lewis

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 straight forward cops and gangster film, Lewis 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 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 down Diamond’s throat a bottle of hair tonic, containing 40% alcohol, he asks to borrow McClure’s hearing aid, then pushes it into Diamond’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 McClure’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 McClure 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 two trusted henchmen, Fante and Mingo, 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’s Alicia and what is her significance is Diamond’s only clue. 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?”

“Homicide.”

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, “Gods and man, 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 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 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 Jean 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 below and out of frame.  The scene did not get by Cornel Wilde, Jean 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 at 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 anymore 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 Joseph H. 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 Rows best known entities.

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11 comments on “The Big Combo (1955) Joseph H. Lewis

  1. Enjoyed your look at “The Big Combo” which was my introduction to film-noir and to this day my yardstick for the style. Of course, I was a teenager when I first saw it and a lot of it was over my head, but the obsessive behaviors and the atmosphere made a major impression. The movie also features one of my favourite Jay Adler performances. He’s my star of that acting family.

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    • John Greco says:

      Patricia, definitely one of the most atmospheric of films, brilliant cinematography. As for Jay Adler, have you seen him in 99 RIVER STREET? He wonderful in that also.

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      • Ooh, I love “99 River Street”. Darn that handsome John Payne, he almost made me forget to look at Jay! Brother Luther A. had a tendency to go a bit over the top at times, but Jay always disappeared into a role. Both approaches are valid, I just get a bigger kick out of Jay.

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  2. John Greco says:

    I agree about Jay Adler, her smoothly just blends into the role. You never get the feeling he’s acting.

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  3. KimWilson says:

    Never seen this. Hard to believe some of the sexual innuendo got past the censors.

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    • John Greco says:

      Director Joseph H. Lewis was questioned by the production code board about the scene with Richard Conte’s head going down and out of frame but he claimed innocence and said something like he had no idea where his head was, it wasn’t in frame anymore.

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  4. DorianTB says:

    John, THE BIG COMBO is one of those movies I keep hearing about — including the hearing-aid scene — but I’ve never actually had an opportunity to watch it. Gotta love that cast and the sly way Lewis got around the oral sex in that notorious scene with Richard Conte! 🙂 I’ll keep an eye out for THE BIG COMBO, for sure! Great post, as always!

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    • John Greco says:

      Dorian, I am sure you will like this, it’s a great story with a wonderfully nasty performance by Conte, an actor I like quite a bit. Thanks as always for stopping by!

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  5. R. D. Finch says:

    John, great post on one of my favorite film noirs. With “Kiss Me Deadly” made the same year, this was the last gasp of traditional film noir, save for Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil” released three years later. I absolutely agree that although he made other interesting films, this and “Gun Crazy” are Lewis’s best work. Although I think you’re right to say that Lewis and Alton are the real stars here, some of the acting made a strong impression on me–Conte, Donlevy, and one I don’t believe you mentioned, Helen Walker. She was on her way to becoming a major actress in the late 40s then got sidelined by personal problems. This film was a comeback of sorts but ended up being the last movie she made. Her portrait of a seriously depressed woman is so uncanny that I can’t help wondering if she channeled her own experiences with misfortune into the character.

    One last comment. In the “I Love Lucy” episode Cornel Wilde guest-starred in (the one where Lucy sneaks into his hotel room concealed under a room-service cart), this is the movie he plugs!

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D., Conte is fantastic here, as I mentioned to Dorian, his is a wonderfully nasty performance. I like Donlevy too, he is always reliable. I don’t much about Walker other than seeing her in CALL NORTHSIDE 777 not too long ago. Sounds like she had a sad life.

      I have seen the Cornel Wilde episode of I LOVE LUCY but don’t remember what movie he was plugging. Thanks for mentioning that. LUCY was one of the greats!!!

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  6. Sam Juliano says:

    John, I love Raskin’s score, and completely agree with what you say here about famed cinematographer John Alton and Joseph H. Lewis himself as the real stars. But Richard Conte is right there too with his spectacular turn. The budget public domain DVD of this film is better than you would expect, but this is one exceptional noir that fully deserves a remastered, legitimate release. Your terrific review again brings that fact to the fore!

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