Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Big Combo (1955) Noir Masterpiece

Directed by Joseph (H) Lewis (My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), So Dark the Night (1946), The Undercover Man (1949), Gun Crazy (1950). This was Lewis' last Classic Film Noir.

The film stars the usual noir suspects, Cornell Wilde, Brian Donlevy, Richard Conte, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Middleton, Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Jay Adler, John Hoyt, along with Jean Wallace, Helene Stanton, and Helen Walker.

Director of photography was the great John Alton (Bury Me Dead (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Canon City (1948), The Amazing Mr. X (1948), Hollow Triumph (1948), He Walked by Night (1948), one of Noirsville's favorites The Crooked Way (1949), Border Incident (1949), Mystery Street (1950), The People Against O'Hara (1951), I, the Jury (1953), and another fave color Classic Noir Slightly Scarlet (1956). The film, consequently, is very dark and quite stylistically lighted as you would expect.

The screenplay was by Philip Yordan, who gave us Dillinger (1945), Whistle Stop (1946), The Chase (1946), House of Strangers (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), Edge of Doom (1950), No Way Out (1950), Detective Story (1951), Joe MacBeth (1955), and The Harder They Fall (1956).

The has appropriately a both equally sleazy and jarring "Jazz Noir" score, with what sounds like an alto sax dominating the piece, was by David Raksin. There is also a film credit listing for Jacob Gimple as a piano soloist.

The Manhattan fly by credit sequence
The film opens the piece with a fly-by of grimy, gritty, grid street lay out of 1950s Manhattan, New York City. All this was replaced just like Los Angeles' Bunker Hill whose soaring skyscrapers are it's modern tombstones. The "Big Apple" is less gritty now in the old Times Square, but apparently just as wormy as in the old days only it's spread out and hidden better.

Once the credit sequence of second unit or stock footage ends the rest of the film is shot with L.A. and studio sets filling in for NYC.

Diamond (Wilde)
The story has a sort "Dirty Harry-esque," rouge cop M.O. The tale supposedly takes place in the 93rd Precinct, however there was no 93rd Precinct in 1955. The closest in numbers the 90th and the 94th are located in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Obsessed NYPD Police Detective Lt. Leonard Diamond (Wilde) is on the hunt for sharp dressed, rapidly staccato talking, sadistic, and carnal Brooklyn based mobster Brown (Conte) whose real Italian name is probably Marrone, Marrono or Maronna. Almost all the other goombah's in the Combo have Italian names. Marrone is Italian for Brown.

Brown (Conte)
"First is first and second is nobody!"
His oft repeated philosophy is "First is first and second is nobody!" Brown got strong enough to be capo by having Hate in his heart. His favorite form of persuading is using a hearing aid as a torture devise, using, what else, loud degenerate jazz music that features a "real crazy" drum solo. This is followed by a 40% alcohol hair tonic chaser.

Police Capt. Peterson (Middleton)"$18,600?"

Diamond has already spent $18,600 of taxpayer money surveilling one man Brown. He gets berated from Peterson his commanding officer. Diamond's defense is that it's not just one man but a "Combination", the Mob, basically. He get's told that he's fighting the swamp with a teaspoon. Diamond rambles convoluted-ly on telling us he's worried about "the High School kids who come into the city and get loaded and irresponsible, they lose their shirts, and they get a gun, and they're worried and wanna make up their losses, and a filling station attendant is dead with a bullet in his liver.... and I have to see four kids on trial for first degree murder...."  Yea, OBSESSED.

Susan (Wallace)

He's also got a six month hard on for Brown's (Conte's) cute, cultured, blonde, chapping at the bit, bombshell, girlfriend Susan (Wallace). Jay Adler is Detective Sam Hill, Wilde's partner who shadows both Susan, and the two slightly "light in the loafer" escorts Mingo (Earl Holliman) and Fante (Lee Van Cleef). Brown employs these two skells to escort Susan about town. He must figure they are more interested in screwing each other than Susan or women in general. Forgedaboudit, these crooks are all made out in best 50s fashion, to be the lowest of the low degenerates.

Fante (Van Cleef), Susan, Mingo (Holliman)
Police Capt. Peterson (Robert Middleton) tells him in the best Noir subtext to forget basically "the slut" Susan, pointing out to  Diamond she spent a lot of time "days....and nights" going around the block and around the world with Brown.

"All I play nowadays is stud poker"
Unsubtly later, Susan enforces this when in a night club she tells a former friend of the family that, she no longer plays the piano, now a days all she plays is "stud poke-her".... and probably the skin flute too. Later on she tells Brown she's wearing what she's wearing instead of white because "white" doesn't suit her anymore.

Helene Stanton plays a statuesque, voluptuous, brunette burlesque dancer Rita (a sort of a Marie Windsor look-a-like) who is stuck on Diamond. Diamond seems to be just using her for sex.

Rita (Stanton)

Diamond (Wide) and statuesque Rita (can't fix stupid, no?)

Wilde really needs to see a shrink, he doesn't know a good thing when he sees it, but he also becomes overly obsessed with saving "soiled" dove Susan.

McClure (Donlevy)
McClure (Donlevy) is Brown's second banana who he inherited when he took over the racket from Grassi who left suddenly for Sicily. Jay Adler plays Diamond's partner Detective Sam Hill.  Helen Walker appears rather late in the film as Brown's ex-wife Alicia Brown.

Detective Sam Hill (Jay Adler)

Alicia Brown (Helen Walker)
When Diamond first hears about Alicia after Susan takes an overdose of sleeping pills, he rounds up all of Browns known associates and again gets called to the carpet for making 67 false arrests. Ted de Corsia is almost unrecognizable in a nice cameo as the broken English speaking Combo man on the lamb, Ralph Bettini.

Ralph Bettini (Ted de Corsia)

Spaghetti at Ted's
The quest to find Alicia eventually sends Brown off to Noirsville.


Diamond (Wilde) on way to Burlesque House to blow off some steam or whatever.

Diamond and Nils Dreyer (Hoyt)

Another Brown kink was always wanting Susan to wear virginal white. 

Its a gritty, violent film noir that shows some surprising sparks of style. Watch for McClure's silent rub out. 

Wilde is such an overly obsessive self-righteous prick, you catch yourself rooting for Conte to dump him in the East River with a set of cement overshoes. And speaking of shoes, Wilde has something of a shoe fetish so keep an ear out for Wilde's classic Noir line about Rita, "Saks Fifth Avenue. . . She came to see me in her best shoes."

Conte is just as obsessed with both power and with Susan, at one point we see them, after a confrontation putting the "kink" on. Conte kisses her hard, one of his hands drop out of sight we see her eyes practically roll up into her head before the cut Conte starts heading "south", and you don't need a paint by the numbers picture with circles and arrows to figure out where "things" are going.... and according to the story they have been going on for about four years.

Conte's Brown, is arguably, one of his most memorable characters.

Brown & Susan getting on the kink
A very kinky film indeed, stylishly lit and directed.  The whole film has a consistent dark halo around it as if you are peeping on the characters from out of a sewer, we can call it "Sewerscope". The Big Combo has it all, not one but two obsessed characters, a Femme Fatale, sexual innuendos, stylistic lighting and again McClure's (Donlevy) demise is just icing on this cake. There are one or two far-fetched plot points but the film is so overwhelmingly compellingly sleazy that you just go with the (sewage) flow. Contains one of the iconic frequently referenced Film Noir sequences (still below).

One of my favorites, 9/10. 

No comments:

Post a Comment