Friday, August 29, 2008

The Big Combo (1955)

(This is a review for www.moviezeal.com/ and its month-long look at classic film noir.)

From the abrupt opening note of David Raksin's instantly, perceptibly moony, jazzy score, the viewer becomes aware of The Big Combo's exquisitely composed cinematic mien as the titles play out over shots of an anonymous American city. The year is 1955 and film noir had fully matured into a self-conscious art form. Noir as an artistic style had become salient. Joseph H. Lewis, director of noirs such as My Name is Julia Ross (1945), So Dark the Night (1946), Gun Crazy (1949), The Undercover Man (1949) and A Lady Without Passport (1950), made The Big Combo as primarily a sexual contest. Lewis's work, often marked by a distinct departure from the ordinary, "healthy" sensual impulses of people, with characters pursuing sexual satisfaction from means far from the typical, consuetudinary lifestyles of the more innocent people who occasionally ran into them. Non-noirs by Lewis such as Secrets of a Co-Ed, Duel of Honor, A Young Man's Fancy and his two most famous noirs, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, explore this theme with strenuously gelid intelligence. The Big Combo, however, Lewis's last noir, most definitively and comprehensively inquires the coria of such examinations.

The Big Combo stars Cornel Wilde as Lieutenant Leonard Diamond, a dogged, honest cop with a quixotic, senseless sexual obsession. That sexual obsession centers on his unrequited love for Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), disillusioned girlfriend to the charismatically peccant gangster, known as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), another twisted object of Diamond's neurotic fixations, the man Diamond is determined to bring down at any cost. (Wilde and Wallace married each other four years before the release of the film.) The triangular thematic paradigm links Diamond's professional and carnal conatus, drawing an uncompromisingly sharp mosaic from the chiaroscuro visual schema by master cinematographer John Alton, veteran of noirish black and white, light and shadow painting, in such films as Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) [nominally an Alfred L. Werker feature], Reign of Terror (1949) and Border Incident (1949).

Alton's lighting is probably the most overwhelming factor that points to the film's self-conscious inhabiting of noir. As with his films for Mann, Alton's cinematography, in a rudimentary, literal way, cloaks the cheapness of the production. On a deeper plane, the lighting excellently conveys the hazardous battle of wills, enlivened by Wilde's cop and Conte's hood, and casts that contest in a preternaturally numinous black-and-white netherworld. That cinematographic virtuosity recalls the dreamlike lighting of the noir-horror tale of Raw Deal. That film was accompanied by Paul Sawtell's unsettlingly eerie score; this film's score by Raksin creates a hypnotic repetitiousness that underscores the ceaseless, seemingly winless war waged by Diamond. The almost wailing jazz tune becomes increasingly familiar, and aids the visual cues in communicating the dire situation of the film's narrative.

One of the most succinct and truest moments of playfulness within the genre noted for its perfidy and danger is the first post-titles scene, which finds Wallace's Lowell running down a dark arena corridor, the sounds of a live boxing bout and raucous crowd wafting through the echoing hall. Chased by two thugs named Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman), the audience is allowed to consider the worst--that the apparently scared Lowell may be running for her life. Instead, she is merely attempting to escape the boxing match, and Fante and Mingo only want to keep her in sight and close to Mr. Brown. Symbolically, however, the sequence succeeds terrifically as an expression of Lowell's desires to leave the clutches of her "first love," as she calls Brown later in the film.

The first scene with Brown takes place in the the locker room of the losing boxer, Benny, a little later in the evening. Brown and the man who was next in line to run the rackets, Joe McClure, confront the boxer, who has a contract with Brown. Screenwriter Philip Yordan provides the gangster with some of the finest, juiciest lines any Hollywood villain has ever had the opportunity to relish delivering, and Conte makes every single one of them count for all they are worth. His talkatively rat-a-tat way of controlling the people to whom he speaks, hypnotically demanding their unmitigated attention with his acidic words and almost manic delivery, is an overpoweringly logical way to intellectually disarm and defeat those around him, and the speech to Benny introduces the viewer to the characteristic.

"So you lost. Next time you'll win. I'll show you how. Take a look at Joe McClure here. He used to be my boss, now I'm his. What's the difference between me and him? We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it! Now it belongs to me. We eat the same steak, drink the same bourbon... Look--same manicure, cufflinks. But we don't get the same girls. Why? Because women know the difference. They got instinct." He offers his paramount thought about life: "First is first and second is nobody," saying the line for the first time in the film but not nearly the last. "What makes the difference? Hate. Hate is the word, Benny. Hate the man who tries to kill you. Hate him until you see red and you come out winning the big money. The girls will come tumbling after. You'll have to shut off the phone and lock the door to get a night's sleep." After Brown slaps Benny, he is crushed by the boxer's inaction. "You should have hit back," Brown snarls. "You haven't got the hate. Tear up Benny's contract," Brown orders McClure. "He's no good to me anymore."

Mr. Brown, as written by Yordan, directed by Lewis and performed by Conte, is sangfroid, philosophizing to his henchmen, coolly manipulating everyone. He has a temper, but he keeps it in check and tries to look at things always from the objective perspective of business. Conte's performance is one of the best in the long, celebrated line of the gangster character. His Mr. Brown upholds the double facade, firstly the obvious shielding of his actual criminal activities from the authorities, but the greater and more interesting emphasis he places on having, in the words of the gangsters who came before him in American cinema, "class," with the cufflinks and manicure, nevertheless possessing his celebrated "hate" that always keeps him razor sharp.

In one palpably tense scene with respective tonal components that act as equivalent weights, balancing out the horror and humor (reminiscent of Raoul Walsh's White Heat), Brown mercifully bestows upon an imminent victim the gift of being unable to hear the sound of the bullets that will destroy him. The film replaces the sound of gunfire with silence. Conte seems to interpret his character's act as genuine charity˜the question of the necessity of the person's death is not a question at all. In a full theatre today the scene evokes muted laughter and hushed comments of shock, creating an appreciative rippling response from the audience.

Wilde, of Czech-Hungarian descent, Hungarian-born, with his bulbous, intense dark eyes and imposingly burly frame, was perfectly cast as the obsessive lieutenant. His perpetual glare, the quiet moments with his girlfriend, a burlesque dancer named Rita, played to sweet, sincere perfection by Helene Stanton. They all add up a cop on the edge of burning out, driven by his twin and connected fixations, wondering why everything in his life seems to be backwards. "What is it about a hoodlum that attracts a certain kind of woman?" Diamond asks himself as much as Rita when they are alone, she knowing his mind is controlled by a certain other woman whose very existence grievously hurts him.

Rita's mien and heart is altruistic, accepting her position as Diamond's sexy, accessible avenue of relieving his stress while he bitterly complains about his unrequited love for a gangster's woman. Rita's answer is to the point: "A woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, only how he makes love." Though her role is small, Stanton leaves an indelible impression, mixing earthy desirability with compassion and empathy for her beau, cursed with listening to his pathetic dissatisfaction with her--and himself. Only too late does Diamond realize he has been a selfish user, describing his relationship with the lady of burlesque as similar to a man with cold hands putting on gloves. In many ways, it is Rita who is the true hero of the picture. Diamond's exaltation of Lowell as something of a golden-haired goddess obscures the truth, which is that the physically darker Rita is the more purely an gelic figure in the cop's life.

And the lovemaking of Lewis's film brought him under considerable scrutiny with the production code. In one scene, Brown attempts to silence Lowell as she speaks of her wonderment that she fell for him by physically imposing himself on her, unilaterally initiating foreplay, kissing and licking Lowell's neck and shoulder, gradually moving himself downward. For 1955 especially, this scene seems to take forever, and concludes with a strong implication of oral sexual preliminaries. In the 1995 PBS "American Cinema" special about film noir, Lewis recalls the story of being interrogated by the censors and studio, demanding that the scene be removed. When inquiring why it must go, Lewis was given the answer, "You can't see where Richard Conte goes to. Where does he go?" Lewis smartly tried to play dumb. "I have no idea," Lewis said. "Maybe he went out for lunch," since he becomes obscured for the rest of the scene after descending behind Jean Wallace. Lewis made the point that he had not shown anything, and it was up to the audience to decide where Conte had gone to, allowing the scene to remain uncut.

Other subtle sexual touches include the characters of Fante and Mingo, the homosexual couple who are at Mr. Brown's beck and call. They stay in very close quarters with one another, exhibiting great loyalty and worry. Mingo is on the simple side, but Fante looks out for him in their treacherous dealings. Late in the film, when they are hiding out from the consequent heat created by the plying of their murderous trade, Mingo complains, saying, "I can't swallow no more salami." "It's all we've got," Fante reminds him. Mingo worries about where Brown is located. Fante places his hand on Mingo's neck and shoulder, comforting him about their safeness. A moment later, after being sufficiently cajoled by the more assertive of the pair, Mingo tenderly puts his hand on Fante's arm, talking about a future where the two have managed to escape this world, leaving it behind them and "never com[ing] back," Mingo worries aloud about the police: "The cops will be looking for us in every closet," he bemoans.

Perhaps most psychologically representative of the sexual theme, the act of humiliation and statement of power when Diamond is captured by Brown and his lieutenants. Brown tortures the cop by loudly playing radio music into a hearing aid device lodged in his ear. Yet that is hardly the entirety of Brown's plan. He takes a bottle of hair tonic, 40% alcohol, hoping to create drunkenness, and forces Diamond's mouth open, pouring the liquid down the lieutenant's throat. The torturous oral rape-as-frame job encapsulates the one character's sexual prowess, carnal satisfaction and corporeal superiority at the expense of the other, the dramatic essence of the triangular relationship between the cop, crook and moll.

A pivotal setting that deeply recalls the coda to Casablanca, a foggy airstrip, plays host to the moral choices that make the final act of the film mightily thrilling. The setting allows for Alton to joyously play with the monochromatic palette, and makes the presence of certain lights metaphorically convey the piercing power of the law and truth, penetratingly fighting through the ambiguity of the underworld. In the film's riveting climax, a light indeed cinematically portrays the essential instrument in the cause of good against the seemingly enveloping darkness of masked criminality and corruption.

The Big Combo most clearly represents the confluence of the gangster picture, the noir and the cop movie all in one. American cinema had found the war between the indefatigable policeman and the ruthless crime boss to be of interest to many movie-goers before even The Racket (1928), and the pattern would remain all the way to the present. Yet Lewis's last noir stands apart, touched as it is by the B-movie director's own interests and themes, made into a starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematographic piece of art by Alton, and given full, magnificent life by the actors who take their archetypal roles and infuse them with depths of motivation spawned by the characters' disparate places in the life of their anonymously typical American city, the most fruitful womb of the genre known as film noir.

30 comments:

Pat said...

Alexander -

You've been tagged for "the OTHER 12-Movie Meme" Details are here:
http://cinemafist.blogspot.com/2008/08/another-12-movies-meme-fest-o-rama.html

Looking forward to seeing your list!

Alexander Coleman said...

That is difficult, made more so for me since my knowledge of Netflix is fairly poor, having never used them...

But thank you for the tag and the challenge, Pat.

Sam Juliano said...

The final of Mr. Coleman's film noir pieces is (again) a highly polished scholarly discoorse that examines one of Joseph H. Lewis's two genre classics, THE BIG COMBO, by examining pertinent psychological undercurrents present in the film (that paragraph discussing the interchanges of Fante and Mingo is most engaging!) the noir as a showcase of superlative visual elements (Mr. Coleman beautiful conveys the 'chiaroscuro visual schemes' by John Alton and the film's exemplary lighting, which in itself instigates a new level of meaning, the use of music (Davis Raskin's jazzy score is admittedly a screen classic) and the rightful declaration early in this exquisitely written essay that THE BIG COMBO is exactly that, a combination, or as Mr. Coleman says a "confluence" of the ganster picture, the noir and the cop picture all in one.
Several of the film's most celebrated sequences and settings, like the Casablanca-like "foggy airstrip" are brought to life in the piece as are the film's leading characters. You won't find a better dissection of THE BIG COMBO anywhere, so if this film interests you at all, Coleman's Corner in Cinema is the place to be.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sam. Your kind and eloquent words are very much appreciated here.

sartre said...

Bravo on another outstanding review of a noir classic Alexander. After reading this I can't wait to revisit the film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sartre. I'm terribly pleased to see that you enjoyed reading this, as you have a great affection for this film, as do I.

Christopher said...

Another remarkable piece. As Sartre says above I want to revisit the film now.

I get this feeling you love film noir.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christopher.

I do love film noir, yes, but it is all the easier when reviewing such outstanding films of the genre like Out of the Past, The Big Heat and The Big Combo.

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! Alexander,
After reading your review of the 1955 film "The Big Combo" I think that you have described with great accuracy the plot/storyline of this film, the great John Alton, photography/camera work (I must admit "outloud" that I learned all about Alton's camera work from fellow "noirheads" on a message board where I use to post messages.) from every "chilling" (Mr. Brown, Fante and Mingo) and "simplistic" (Cornel Wilde's Leonard Diamond and Rita's, Helene Stanton's Rita.) detail about the characters in director Joseph H. Lewis, 1955 film "The Big Combo" too.
Alexander,I don't think that you only know about film noir, but I think that you know about films period.
Thanks, for sharing!

dcd :-)

Btw, I just recently, acquired a Lobby card for the film "The Big Combo" and a copy of this film. (Which I may pull out again, after reading your review here on your blog.)

The Lewis Roll Call:
My Name is Julia Ross (1945),(I just acquired a copy of this film and watched it for the first-time. And I also own Gun Crazy...Courtesy of the Warner Bros. boxset Volume I.)

(I have never watched Lewis' "So Dark the Night" (1946),"The Undercover Man" (1949)and "A Lady Without Passport" (1950) Well, not yet!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the very kind words, Dark City Dame, it means a great deal to know you enjoyed my noir pieces, naturally, haha.

I have seen all of those other Joseph H. Lewis films. My Name is Julia Ross is a fine, 65-minute psychological thriller. The others are all worth seeing, too, including Lady Without Passport as it features a fairly solid performance from Hedi Lamarr, and is an enjoyable noir, besides.

Thank you yet again for the very kind words and informative comments, Dark City Dame.

Peter said...

Just arrived here from the link posted under The Big Combo review written by Allan Fish at Wonders in the Dark, and must say (I've never read any of your reviews before) but this one really gives a new definition to the word 'definitive.' I saw the film years ago, and have never forgotten some of the leads, nor that moody music and photography, but your look at it is way more than that. Outstanding work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Hi, Peter, thank you for stopping by, reading and commenting.

You're right, of course, once you see this film, you cannot ever forget it. The performances, the music, the cinematography: all components are marvelously woven to make this a film noir classic.

Thank you for the very kind words, and very insightful input. I hope you continue to check in at Coleman's Corner.

Peter said...

Thank you Mr. Coleman. I just punked out at Wonders, but if they asked me (by putting a gun to my head) if I had to pick a winner of the three Big Combo reviews I read, I'd go with yours.

I'll try to check in here when I'm able to.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you very much for for the kind words again, and I'm most appreciative of your enjoying this review.

I look forward to seeing you here when you're able to visit. :-)

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Sergei Smirnov said...

Exquisite review of one of my favorite film noirs, Alexander. I saw this at a noir festival some years back. NOthing like seeing Mr. Alton's cinematography on the big screen, at least not until I read this. A dazzling essay.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you you very much, Sergei. You are far, far too kind.

Believe it or not, I too saw this at a noir festival almost two years ago, run by noir writer enthusiast extraordinaire Eddie Muller--Noir City--at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. A singularly wonderful experience.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie. A real classic. Marvelous and exhaustive review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind words, Anonymous. What you say about the film is completely accurate.

Harold said...

Wow what a review!!! I saw this some time ago at a movie theater in NYC. I love everything about it, and your piece brought out everything in it that makes it sing.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Harold.

Sam Juliano said...

Well, you won't find a review of this particular film this insightful and comprehensive. In fact there are many film buffs out there who have yet to see it, especially since it is apparently a public domain title and hasn't yet been released on a big-studio DVD. I've said my piece on this thread, but it's simply one of those essays where one reading isn't enough.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very kindly, Sam. Yes, this film has not received the kind of DVD release it deserves, though it is available, I believe. (I have a commercial DVD of it myself. I better go search for that, haha.)

Thank you again.

darkcitydame4e.com said...

Hi! Sam Juliano and Alexander,
Sam Juliano said,"In fact there are many film buffs out there who have yet to see it, especially since it is apparently a public domain title and hasn't yet been released on a big-studio DVD. I've said my piece on this thread, but it's simply one of those essays where one reading isn't enough."

Sam Juliano, Oh! yes, the 1955 film "The Big Combo" was restored and released by Image Entertainment, but I must admit that the Image Entertainment Dvd...(Is Out of Print) and there is also a really nice print of the film "The Big Combo" released by Geneon?!? (I'am not sure about the spelling of Geneon.)

DeeDee ;-D

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Dark City Dame, thank you as always for that terrific and informative comment!

(And yes, I have received your emails. I'm so busy I've been unable to respond, so I'll just say, most emphatically, thank you!) :-)

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Sam Juliano said...

Dee Dee, I do have an original DVD of THE BIG COMBO now, thank you very much. But it's not the Image, unfortunately; it's the other one you note. Stilll th equality is fine.

Hello Alexander!

Alexander Coleman said...

Hello, Sam! I'm just about to post a new review...

clown boy said...

Tremendous essay. I really love this movie. The black and white photography by John Alton is wonderful.

Nathan said...

It cannot have effect in reality, that is what I think.
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