Cornel Wilde plays an obsessed cop out to get crime boss Richard Conte in THE BIG COMBO, an outstanding gangster film that created quite a stir when it was first released due to its sadistic violence and exploration of twisted sexuality. Joseph H. Lewis's stylish direction, Philip Yordan's
hard-boiled script, John Alton's superb low-key cinematography, and David Raksin's jazzy score all combine to create a classic film noir.
Police detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is obsessed with arresting crime czar Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). Diamond has also fallen for Brown's lover Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a former pianist who has tried to commit suicide in order to get away from Brown. After Diamond learns that Brown
may have killed his first wife, Alicia, he arrests Brown, his associate Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), and his entire gang, and gives them the third degree, but can't get any proof. Brown later retaliates by having his two thugs Mingo (Earl Holliman) and Fante (Lee Van Cleef) abduct Diamond and
torture him. When Brown uncovers evidence that Alicia is still alive, he tells Susan about it and convinces her to leave Brown.
Brown then sends Mingo and Fante to Diamond's apartment to kill him, but he's not there and they inadvertently shoot his stripper girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton). Diamond tracks down Alicia at a sanitarium, who tells him that Brown had killed his former boss Grazzi in order to get the top spot in
the mob. When McClure learns the truth about Grazzi's murder, he schemes with Mingo and Fante to kill Brown, but they turn the tables on McClure and kill him instead. Brown later double-crosses Mingo and Fante and tries to kill them with a bomb, but before dying, Mingo puts the finger on Brown.
Brown abducts Susan from police custody and goes to a private airplane hangar to await a plane which will fly them out of the country, but Alicia tells Diamond the location of the hangar. Diamond shows up and arrests Brown, then walks away with Susan.
The words used most often to describe THE BIG COMBO when it was first released were "ugly, "raw," and "vicious," and even today, the film remains quite potent, although mostly because one doesn't expect to encounter such brutality in older films, even if most of the violence actually takes place
off screen. The film's most notorious scene, depicting the torture of Diamond by putting McClure's hearing-aid in his ear and blasting jazz into it, followed by pouring hair tonic down his throat, is shocking in its sadism, but it fits right in with Brown's philosophy of leaving no marks and
treating crime as "impersonal business." The hearing aid is also later used as a reverse stylistic device in the brilliantly impressionistic scene where McClure is murdered and we see the guns blazing but don't hear anything because Brown has pulled out his hearing aid. As he did in GUN CRAZY
(1949), Lewis also makes an explicit connection between sexual depravity and violent behavior, exemplified in the sado-masochistic relationship between the crude Brown and the once-refined Susan, and in the subtly, but unmistakably, homoerotic relationship between Mingo and Fante (wonderfully
underplayed by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman).
Susan's attraction to Brown is also explained on a purely carnal level, as evidenced in the startling scene where she tells him she despises him and he roughly grabs her head and kisses her, then slowly kisses her entire body, moving farther and farther down until his head disappears out of the
frame and she throws her head back in ecstasy (this scene reportedly so outraged Cornel Wilde, who was married to Jean Wallace, the actress playing Susan, that he tried to have the censors remove it despite the fact that his production company co-produced the film). Even the self-righteous Diamond
is controlled by his sexual urges, as his law-and-order crusade is motivated as much by his desire to nail Susan as it is to nail Brown. The performances by the archetypal 1950s B-movie cast are all excellent, especially Conte, who spits out dialogue like "First is first and second is nobody" with
venomous glee. Physically and thematically, THE BIG COMBO is one of the darkest films noirs ever made, with not one scene taking place during the day, and Lewis uses Alton's masterly chiaroscuro lighting to fill the screen with shots of dark alleys, rain-soaked streets and flashing neon lights
streaming through venetian blinds, creating a fatalistic symphony of light and shade. (Violence, sexual situations.)
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- Review: Cornel Wilde plays an obsessed cop out to get crime boss Richard Conte in THE BIG COMBO, an outstanding gangster film that created quite a stir when it was first released due to its sadistic violence and exploration of twisted sexuality. Joseph H. Lewis's… (more)