Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, Helen Walker, Jay Adler, John Hoyt, Ted de Corsia
Written by: Philip Yordan
Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 86
Date: 02/13/1955

The Big Combo (1955)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hoodlum Love

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Joseph H. Lewis's The Big Combo looks and feels more sophisticated than his more primal, more erotic Gun Crazy, but it has its own perverse pleasures. Up front, there's the astounding black-and-white cinematography by the great John Alton, who used blacker blacks and whiter whites than anyone else in the business. He creates pools of hope and despair right from the beginning as a gangster's unhappy girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) tries to run away from her duty of sitting next to him at a boxing match. She passes through darkness and light before a pair of henchmen catch her.

On the surface, the movie is about a police lieutenant, Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is trying to catch an underworld kingpin known as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). In Diamond's first scene, he is ordered to shut down the investigation: he has spent too much of the department's money with no results. But it's clear that Diamond is too far gone. He has gone gaga over Susan.

For such a talky movie, The Big Combo has a lot of sex on its brain. In one standout scene, a guilty, disgusted Susan fights with Brown, until he approaches her, nuzzles her neck and starts to move downward. She lets out a gasp that can't be mistaken for anything else but pure animal pleasure. Meanwhile, the lieutenant may not be as much of an animal -- he's not a "hoodlum" -- but he also keeps a bit on the side. He goes to see a showgirl who is clearly his second choice, and she knows it.

Then there are Brown's two henchmen, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), who at one point are hiding out in a warehouse with -- as my esteemed colleague Fernando Croce points out -- nothing to eat but salami. Indeed, the point of The Big Combo seems to be to restore all subversive relationships to normal, with normal, boring sex, more than it is to catch any bad guys. The dialogue, by Philip Yordan, fairly sings with either subtle or overt comments and complaints about how girls prefer bad boys because the sex is better.

During the film noir era, few were better at this kind of thing than Lewis was. The Big Combo may not have the crackle or kinetic energy of Gun Crazy, but it's just as saucy and feels less guilty. Olive Films released a 2013 Blu-ray edition, with no extras. I've heard complaints about scratches and the soft quality of the daylight scenes, but for me, Alton's cinematography looked spectacular.

Movies Unlimtied