The Big Combo (1955)
Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde), possessed by a desire to save a dame (Jean Wallace), attempts to bring down mob-boss Mr Brown (Richard Conte) and his colourful syndicate.
Bluntly embossed with quintessential characteristics of the genre, the big combo feels like a last hurrah for vintage noir. From the opening frames of Jean Wallace fleeing her mob-boss-lover only to be chased down by the hawk-faced Lee Van Cleef and his partner, this film keeps giving.
Unusually cruel by the genre’s standards there is scant room for comic relief. The personification of mob brutality is Richard Conte’s villain, Mr Brown, perfectly sketched against a montage of smoking guns and burning cigarettes. The sequence where Mr Brown tortures Lt. Diamond is perhaps the most memorable feature of this now-forgotten movie – and it’s the scene which solidifies Conte’s character as the bastard he is. All silver-tongued and delivering lines with acidic wit, Mr Bown is one of my favourite noir bad guys.
The black and white photography here is remarkable; mainly because the film is near only shot at night. Throughout the picture, faces are slyly hidden behind shadows until revealed brazenly by the sporadic use of bright light and silhouettes dance in and out of the foreground. It seems like you are watching a live comic book, beset with choice cuts of mob dialogue. The script is professionally water-tight: “first is first and second is nobody!” spits Conte on more than one occasion. “You can’t tell a jury a man’s guilty because he’s too innocent!” howls the world-weary police chief in charge.
The themes here are all about red-blooded obsession and dangerously unsaturated ambition. The fate of those harbouring the latter is universally adverse for them (Conte and his scheming old-school deputy) whilst those endowed with the former fare with mixed fortune in the screenplay (Lt. Diamond does rather better than his infatuated bit-on-the-side Rita).
There are lots of little touches which turn this from a darn good film into a justifiable classic. Van Cleef’s Fante and side-kick Mingo are Conte’s favourite heavies – these are the chaps who carry out a killing when needed. But what’s interesting is the screenplay implies that these two have a relationship which goes beyond simple friendship.
The close of the movie is accomplished; fog enshrouds an aircraft hanger as our silhouetted (of course) detective hounds a fatally corned but desperate to elope Conte – bathed in harsh spotlight against a rugged corrugated-iron wall. The final shot sees the outlines of the femme fatale and besotted detective disappear into the mist.
A real gem which is worthy of rediscovery by all.
Hotdog rating: 9/10