It starts well. The shadows are in evidence, and there's a noisy boxing match roaring in the city. Behind the scenes, a girl is pursued down those expressionist corridors, with only the self-gratified roar of the crowd as backdrop. As The Big Combo starts we’re right in there at the heart of the caper, although the real story of The Big Combo is that of Cornel Wilde’s cop, and his obsession with catching the cooly menacing crime lord, Mr Brown, played brilliantly by Richard Conte.
Wilde plays his desperate ninety-six-fifty-a-week cop very well. He lives in a cheap flat across from a burlesque house, one of whose headliners (Helene Stanton) he occasionally sees. But in a film of surprising homosexual undertones, his only passion is for nailing the suave and savage crime boss. His alter ego and possibly in his dreams, his lover.
The introductory scenes of The Big Combo may remind you of Tarantino and Pulp Ffiction — two of the film's supporting characters, Fante and Mingo (played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) are the hoods whose job it is to carry out the orders of kingpin Mr Brown, while an even lesser character is the boxer who Mr Brown drops from the payroll. I wonder if you were to move these characters from the periphery to present their story as the leading story, you would have Jules and Vincent, and even Butch from Pulp Fiction? Note also that Reservoir Dogs also features a torture scene including a radio, an ear and a policeman tied to a chair.
Torture, radio style in The Big Combo (1955)
The Big Combo is rich in slick talk, from the sharp-toned to the evil-tongued.
Mr Brown: “I'm gonna give you a break. I'm gonna fix it, so you don't hear the bullets.” Mr Brown’s lines are as snappy, slick and inspiring as anything in noir. Consider:
“Diamond, the only trouble with you is, you'd like to be me. You'd like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You can't, it's impossible. You think it's money. It's not. It's personality. You haven't got it. You're a cop. Slow. Steady. Intelligent. With a bad temper and a gun under your arm. With a big yen for a girl you can't have. First is first and second is nobody.”
"Joe, tell the man I'm gonna break him so fast, he won't have time to change his pants. Tell him the next time I see him, he'll be in the lobby of the hotel, crying like a baby and asking for a ten dollar loan. Tell him that. And tell him I don't break my word."
It’s a strong image. Somewhere in that breaking process is a hapless victim, trying to change his (soiled?) trousers.
From most angles The Big Combo views like a straight up crime thriller. Why do cops in noir spend so much time backstage at burlesque theatres? The dancer in this, whom you may think is going to be the femme fatale, winds up as the hapless victim, turning out as mere plot fodder. The other female lead character, played by the very beautiful Jean Wallace, apparently used to be an aspiring concert pianist before she gave it all up for stud poker and hanging with the hoods. It seems unlikely, but there it is. Funnily enough it’s one backstory that’s missing from Pulp Fiction — why Mia fell for Marcellus in the first place.
Regarding the big combo itself (’The Combination’) the police captain describes it best: ‘You’re talking about the largest pool of illegal money in the world; you’re fighting a swamp with a teaspoon.’ The story is of one cop versus one criminal, a tale that’s been told a few ways over the years. Sometimes the cop goes bad or mad in the process, sometimes as here, we just watch the procedural march as the crime boss is hunted down. Due to the restricted budget, you get very little if any idea at all what Mr Brown’s organisation is and what it does, but all that is made up for with Richard Conte’s star performance.
The musical theme of The Big Combo is repeated relentlessly throughout the picture, but it’s a great theme and apt; watching The Big Combo is also a good time to once more notice the similarity between a wailing clarinet and a police siren.
Richard Conte, cool menace in spades
Richard Conte is pretty much the star, although up until the day before production began, his part was to be played by Jack Palance — which would have been great as well. Richard Conte made plenty noir in his day — The Spider (1945), Somewhere in the Night (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), Thieves’ Highway (1948), Whirlpool (1949), The Sleeping City (1950), Under the Gun (1950), the Raging Tide (1951), the Blue Gardenia (1953), Highway Dragnet (1954), New York Confidential (1955), and The Brother Rico (1957). He also of course memorably appears in The Godfather (1972). He has a great smug look to him, and his Italianate glare made him popular as a gangster in many roles.
‘A woman dresses for a man — you dress for me — go and put on something white.’ This is one of these movies which was written hard-boiled. The writer in question was Philip Yordan, who was still chipping away at it into the 1990s — for which see the equally noirishly titled Dead Girls Don't Tango (1992).
As for the elements of noir, it appears that no film is perfect and that at the same time there is no such thing as a pure noir. The Big Combo is in many aspects a police procedural, but there are so many noir aspects sneaking in at the sides, that it is always canonised as noir. It’s sadistic, and is dramatically lit with emphasis on the dark and the light. It has a tough tone and the hero is so flawed as to be near villainous — certainly he has an unhealthy obsession.
It may not be helpful in terms of definition but for me a noir must have something extra, a layer of real cruelty, or genuine cinematic class, or something that is standalone and unique — maybe a level of Freudian simplicity to it, to lend it a punitive tragedy, something harsh perhaps. To this end a clinical definition of Freudian paranoia is helpful — properly referring to delusions of self-importance or persecution, as opposed to the gentler and wide ranging all-pervading paranoia we are used to describing today. The paranoia delivered in The Big Combo does work however.
Even though we don’t know what Mr Brown’s crime organisation really does, we do know that it is perpetuated through an illusion which brown orchestrates and maintains. The cop, played by Richard Conte is paranoid — obsessed with catching a criminal that the rest of the force don’t seem that bothered about, and haphazard as he tries to link together scraps of information in nailing his opponent.
Cornel Wilde does have an occasional girlfriend, but he shows no interest in her, and instead a half interest in the crime boss’ girlfriend, so a suppressed homosexual desire is readable into the cop / criminal relationship. Mingo and Fante are also the most clearly homosexual characters in noir, especially as they sleep in the same room, and tend to care for each other in their rough way.
Director Joseph Lewis is credited with more than one noir — Gun Crazy, Lady Without Passport (1950) and Cry of the Hunted (1953). The studio that made The Big Combo, Allied Artists, did well to adjust to the post 1948 world in which the studio system was being closed down. Although the studio had done deals with some big names such as Billy Wilder, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, it couldn’t afford to make A-pictures, so tended to stick to the newer exploitation market, which attracted a youthful audience with controversial themes.
Here it comes: a controversial move.
One of those themes is by now dated attempt to portray something akin to oral sex. Cornel Wilde, the rather flat hero of The Big Combo was married to Jean Wallace, who at one point is smothered in kisses by the crime boss played by Richard Conte. He kisses her from behind and then lowers himself out of shot, while Jean Wallace pants at the camera. This was shot while Cornel Wilde was sent off to watch some rushes, but when he saw it, he was extremely angry, and apparently never forgave her.
But Cornel Wilde’s protest fell on deaf ears. The director asked him ‘show what I have done?’ arguing that anybody capable of reading the scene as oral sex would not be shocked and those who were not capable of making the connection would be safe. Director Joseph Lewis was also called before the Production Code committee to explain the shot — one of the committee boldly stating: ‘This filth showing a guy going down on a woman is not for the American audience.’ Lewis butched it out however and replied, ‘That wasn’t my intention at all… if you want to imagine this, that’s up to you. But you never saw him kiss that girl below the neck.’
The censor demanded to know where Conte was supposed to have gone when he slid out of shot, and director Lewis answered him: ‘How the hell do I know? What does an actor do when you move in on a close up of someone else? Go sit down somewhere, I guess.’
Thus, The Big Combo is pretty much hack work, offering sexual suggestiveness and criminal violence, packaged in a noir aesthetic, and it wasn’t that well received either. The New York Times (26 March 1955) said:
Even with the combo of a capable cast and the kernel of a provocative plot, the result is a shrill, clumsy and rather old-fashioned crime melodrama with all hands pulling in opposite directions.
I suggest that they take another view. Clumsy, I may afford them, but time has told none other story than the one which ends with the line: 'The Big Combo is a classic.'