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).
I have always hesitated to watch this film because I, for whatever reason on my part, lacked any attraction to the two leading stars Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken. Well, I finally bit the bullet, smacked myself a couple of times and said this is a Preston Sturges film, just watch it! Subsequently I finally picked up a copy at the local library and happily report how foolish I have been to have avoided this clever work.
Trudy Klockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a war time victory girl who dates soldiers about to leave for the war. She sees this as her patriotic duty! On one of these wild evenings Trudy gets drunk, marrying one of the unknown soldiers she partied with and the next morning cannot remember a damn thing about how it all happened. Complications ensue when she soon finds out she is pregnant. Local 4-F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) is in love with Trudy tries to help (she borrows his car to go out and party while he goes alone to a movie) but cannot compete with the soldiers and constantly find himself in trouble with Trudy’s hyper protective father (William Demarest). False identities, jail time for Norval and the birth of sextuplets all contribute to the surprisingly miraculous and controversial going ons.
For the time period this has to be one of the most audacious comedies ever made, a bold satire making sophisticated fun of marriage, small town life, soldiers, and the government all the while pushing the buttons of the production code. Sturges takes on small town values, the sanctity of soldiers going off to war, local politics presenting an almost anti-Capraesque view of America reminding one that he was one of the best screenwriters of his time and now.
The film was held up from release for about a year resulting in Sturges having three films released in 1944 (Hail, The Conquering Hero and The Great Moment being the other two). The film was a big hit with audiences when it hit the screens in January becoming Paramount’s biggest money maker for the year.
The cast includes fifteen year old Diana Lynn as Trudy’s kid sister along with many of Sturges regulars including Demarest, Chester Conklin, and Porter Hall among others. Reprising their roles from “The Great McGinty” are Brian Donlevy as the Governor, and Akim Tamiroff as the Boss in cameos.
Sturges received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay that year (he was also nominated the same year for “Hail the Conquering Hero”) losing to Lamar Trotti for “Wilson.” The Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin 1958 film “Rock a Bye Baby” is a loose remake of this film for which Sturges received a screenwriting credit.
“The Great McGinty” was Preston Sturges first directorial effort. Already rooted with a reputation as an excellent screenwriter, Sturges sought to direct; he disliked when directors changed his scripts, in particular Mitchell Leisen who directed two of his works, “Easy Living” and “Remember the Night.” Sturges, in a deal with Paramount, sold “The Great McGinty” script for $1 in exchange for letting him direct his first film. For legal reasons, Paramount actually had to increase the payment to $10 but either way Sturges was directing. The script’s origin goes back to 1932 and went under various titles among them “The Vagrant”, “Down Went McGinty” and “The Biography of a Bum.”
We first meet McGinty bartending in an unnamed banana republic where he begins to tell his story to another American (Louis Jean Heydt) who is drunk, depressed and on the verge of suicide. In an attempt to convince the man, others have fallen further in life than he has McGinty narrates his story. We flashback to an American city, probably Chicago, where we first meet McGinty as a vagrant getting mixed up with local gangsters who are rigging elections and controlling elected officials. A character, only known by the name The Politician (William Demarest) is fixing votes for the current puppet Mayor, Wilfred Tillinghast who is owned by the big guy in town simply called The Boss (Akim Tamnioff). Straight from the breadlines, McGinty is a willing volunteer to join The Politician’s crusade to vote and vote often, with the promise he will get $2 for every time he vote’s. How is this accomplished? By using the names of dead people and going to different election polls of course. McGinty’s tenacity brings him to the attention of The Boss when it is discovered he managed to amazingly vote 37 times! Now he wants the $74 that is owed to him. The Boss is impressed by his doggedness and hires McGinty as an enforcer to ensure delinquent storeowners pay for protection (“you’ve got to pay somebody to protect you from human greed.”) The Boss soon realizes that McGinty has potential for being more than just a thug and shortly has him running for the office of Alderman. Within a short period, Tillinghast is out as Mayor, and McGinty is The Boss’ new “reform” candidate. There is only one problem, McGinty now has to get married because as The Boss tells it “if you haven’t heard, the women have the vote now….they don’t like bachelors.” So, McGinty marries his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) who has her own reasons for agreeing to this odd couple arrangement. What first starts out as a “business” arrangement soon turns to love when McGinty becomes jealous of Catherine going out to dinner with an old male friend of hers. It does not take long for Catherine to go from calling him Mr. McGinty to darling.
The graft has been lucrative and the Boss decides to go big time and have McGinty run for Governor. Before long victory is theirs, however The Boss’ new plans for bigger graft are thwarted when McGinty decides to go the honest route. No sooner is he in office they fight over McGinty’s new honesty policy resulting in The Boss shooting McGinty. The Boss is sent to jail, and he immediately implicates McGinty in all the graft schemes they initiated over the years. The new Governor is quickly arrested, ending up in a jail cell next to The Boss.
Both men manage to escape, thanks to The Politician, and exit the country in the dark of night. For McGinty, this also meant leaving his wife and family behind. We flash forward to the present time as McGinty’s finishes telling his tale. One customer who has been listening to McGinty’s story yells out that it is all a lot of malarkey. McGinty does not deny it however; truth or not, he did save a man from suicide.
When the film was released in August of 1940, no one was expecting much. There was no advance publicity from Paramount. All anticipated the film to come into town, play a week or two and disappear. To the surprise of everyone, the film turned out to be a laugh out loud hit. Moreover, the film had bite! It also had Brian Donlevy in a rare lead role that he took full advantage of, delivering an excellent and sensitive portrayal of a man who starts out as a simple thug and develops into a selfless individual. Akim Tamiroff plays well off Donlevy and Muriel Angelus is fine in the pivotal role of his secretary/wife who at first accepts the greed and thief of her husband’s political lifestyle by rationalizing that it is impossible to rob from the people because when you rob, you spend and it all ends up going back to the people. When she eventually abandons this absurd philosophy, it also kindles McGinty’s will to go straight and be an honest politician. Of course, going honest turned out to be his downfall. William Demarest, one of the many actors who became part of Sturges stock company is lively and filled with plenty of spunk in his role known only as The Politician. Many other actors who would become part of Sturges “stock company’’ also appear in the film. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff would reprise their roles as McGinty and The Boss a few years later in Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan Creek.”
For Muriel Angelus, “The Great McGinty” would be her final film. She made two appearances on Broadway in the early 1940’s in “Sunny River” and Fats Waller’s “Early to Bed” before retiring. In the late 1930’s she had made her Broadway debut in the Rogers and Hart musical, “The Boys from Syracuse.”
An interesting aside (source Wikipedia) is Akim Tamiroff’s malaprop laced performance here was the source for the villainous spy Boris Badenov character in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show
Richard Widmark in his screen debut dominates “Kiss of Death”, a fairly suspenseful film noir crime drama. As the crazed psychotic Tommy Udo, Widmark’s portrayal is just plain creepy and his performance alone makes this film a must see. The classic scene where Udo tosses wheelchair bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs still packs one a hell of a punch. The film stars Victor Mature as Nick Bianco, a small time crook who is caught after a Christmas Eve jewel robbery and sent to jail. Assistant D.A. D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) tries to persuade Bianco to name his two partners in the robbery but Nick is no stoolie. This typical hoodlum stance however results in a twenty year sentence. Three years later after a visit from Nettie Cavello, a former babysitter for Nick’s family, Nick finds out his wife committed suicide after she was attacked by Pete Rizzo, one of Nick’s accomplices in the jewel robbery. Distraught Nick decides to tell the D’Angelo everything in exchange for a visit to see his two daughters. D’Angelo arranges for Nick to tell his crooked lawyer Howser that Rizzo squealed on him. Howser hires the now free crazed killer Udo to murder Rizzo. When Tommy gets to Rizzo’s apartment, he has already fled and the only person there is his wheelchair bound mother. Upset that Rizzo escaped, Udo ties mother Rizzo to the wheelchair with telephone cord and tosses her down a flight of stairs. Now released from jail, with the help of D’Angelo, Nick marries Nettie and with the two kids, they are living an honest and clean life. However, Nick still has some debt to be paid. D’Angelo wants him to get the goods on Udo. Nick meets with Udo who takes Tommy around the town introducing him to underworld characters, revealing enough information for Nick to tell D’Angelo who can now prosecute Udo. D’Angelo wants Nick who is living under an assumed name with his family, to testify against Udo, swearing that a conviction is a sure thing. Reluctantly Nick testifies however, Udo is found not guilty and released. Now knowing that Nick was a turn coat and squealed Udo is out to kill Nick. The confrontation that follows has Nick setting up a meeting with Udo who despises squealers so much he wants to shoot Nick personally, ignoring his cohorts advise about him being a three time loser if he is caught with a fire arm. The films ending is fairly standard stuff. Nick survives the shootout and Udo goes to jail.
In addition, a large problem is its conflicting moral view. First, we are to root for Bianco living the criminal code and not squealing, a position most crime movies take. Then after finding out about his wife’s tragic death Nick turns stoolie and sings his way out of jail. At this point, the film now wants us to accept Nick the canary as the hero of the story. Maybe this is the reason Udo was made such an evil despicable character so that is Nick’s canary singing does not look that bad when compared to the psychotic Tommy Udo tossing a sick old lady down a flight of stairs.
Victor Mature is a pretty stiff actor and gives one of his typical performances as Nick Bianco. For Coleen Gray, this was the first time she received screen credit and is decent as the adoring baby sitter with a crush on Nick. Coleen had previously appeared in a couple of other films unbilled. However, as mentioned earlier this is all Richard Widmark’s film. He is just amazing as the crazed wide eyed disturbed Tommy Udo, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award. Listen and look at Widmark as Udo, the high pitched giggling voice. The hat he wears. It looks like the young Widmark here was auditioning for the role of The Joker for the next upcoming Batman movie.