In this lesson we are going to examine Joseph Lewis’s 1955 film, The Big Combo. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it. IMDB.
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The Big Combo (1955) is an American film noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis and photographed by cinematographer John Alton, with music by David Raksin.
Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is on a personal crusade to bring down sadistic gangster Mr. Brown. He’s also dangerously obsessed with Brown’s girlfriend, the suicidal Susan Lowell. His main objective as a detective is to uncover what happened to a woman called “Alicia” from the crime boss’s past.
Mr. Brown, his second-in-command McClure and thugs Fante and Mingo kidnap and torture the lieutenant, then pour a bottle of alcohol-based hair tonic down his throat before letting him go. Diamond eventually learns through one of Brown’s past accomplices that Alicia was actually Brown’s wife. The accomplice suspects that Alicia was sent away to Sicily with former mob boss Grazzi, then murdered, tied to the boat’s anchor and permanently submerged.
Diamond questions a Swede named Dreyer, who was the skipper of that boat (but now operates an antiques store as a front, bankrolled by Brown). Dreyer denies involvement, but this doesn’t prevent him from being murdered by McClure within seconds after he leaves the shop.
Diamond tries to persuade Susan to leave Brown and admits he might be in love with her. He shows her a photo of Brown, Alicia and Grazzi together on the boat. Susan finally confronts Brown about his wife and is told she is still alive in Sicily, Italy, living with Grazzi.
Brown next orders a hit on Diamond. However, when his gunmen Fante and Mingo go to Diamond’s apartment, they mistakenly shoot and kill the cop’s burlesque dancer girlfriend Rita instead. Diamond sees an up-to-date photo of Alicia but realizes it wasn’t taken in Sicily (since there’s snow on the ground). This leads Diamond to suspect Brown didn’t kill Alicia but his boss Grazzi instead. Diamond is able to track Alicia to a sanitarium, where she is staying under another name. He asks for her help.
Brown’s right-hand man, McClure, wants to take over. He plots with Fante and Mingo to ambush Mr. Brown, but ends up getting killed himself because they are loyal to the boss.
At police headquarters, Brown shows up with a writ of habeas corpus, effectively preventing Alicia to testify against her husband. Brown also brings a big stash of “money” to Fante and Mingo while they are hiding out from the police, but the box turns out to contain a bomb that apparently kills both.
Brown shoots the lieutenant’s partner Sam and kidnaps Susan, planning to fly away to safety. Diamond finds a witness that could finally nail the elusive gangster — Mingo, who survived the blast and confesses that Brown was behind it all. Alicia is able to help Diamond figure out where Brown was likely to take Susan, a private airport where Brown intends to board a getaway plane.
However, the plane doesn’t show up and the film climaxes in a foggy airplane hangar shootout. Susan shines a bright light in Brown’s eyes and the lieutenant places him under arrest. The last scene shows the silhouetted figures of Diamond and Susan in the fog, considered to be one of the iconic images of film noir.
The Big Combo ran into trouble with Hollywood’s censorship board which trimmed a few scenes from the final release version due to the violence. By 1955 standards, the film was extreme in its depiction of certain sadistic acts. The most controversial scene, however, is one which defines the master-slave relationship of Brown and Susan. After trying to rebuff Brown’s sexual advances, Susan succumbs to his lustful kissing that begins on her lips, moves to her neck and back and travels down her body out of the camera range while we see feelings of shame and sexual ecstasy play across her face. (source)
Joseph Lewis on the censors and his controversial scene between Susan and Mr. Brown
Reviews of the movie today are mostly positive. Chris Dashiell on the website CineScene finds the dialogue “run of the mill” but praises the film’s director, writing that “Lewis had a remarkable ability to infuse poetry into the most banal material, and The Big Combo is one of his best efforts… it’s not as startlingly inventive as Lewis’s best film, Gun Crazy (1949), but it’s a quality B-film, satisfying and dark.”
The staff at Variety magazine liked the film’s direction, music and photography, despite “a rambling, not-too-credible plot.” They wrote, “Performances are in keeping with the bare-knuckle direction by Joseph Lewis and, on that score, are good. Low-key photography by John Alton and a noisy, jazzy score by David Raksin [with solo piano by Jacob Gimpel] are in keeping with the film’s tough mood.”
Film critic Ed Gonzalez lauded the film in his review, writing, “Shadows and lies are the stars of The Big Combo, a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented texture of a spider’s web…John Alton’s lush camera work is so dominant here you wouldn’t know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesn’t have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the director’s Gun Crazy, but that’s no loss given this film’s richer returns. The set-pieces are fierce, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallace’s performance—a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil—is one of noir’s great unheralded triumphs.”
Critics have compared the quality of The Big Combo to Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat as one of the great film noir detective classics in terms of style. It is also considered as one of the best work of legendary cinematographer John Alton.