The Noirvember Files: The Big Combo
With film noir you can’t ignore the classics; The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Double Indemnity, Key Largo, The Big Sleep and so on goes the list of iconic American movies. But then there’s the subset of B-movies featuring aging character players, up-and-comers, or blips whose big breaks came and went; titles made on the quick with shoestring budgets like Detour, The Hitchhiker, DOA, Born to Kill, Gun Crazy, He Walked by Night, and Pickup on South Street. These films move at a different pace, have their own tone, and play by their own rules, like the warped characters that populate with blunt aggression and unpredictability, which is exactly why I love them.
One director on par with B-movie maestros such as Samuel Fuller, Edgar G. Ulmer, or Rudolph Mate is Joseph Lewis, whose many credentials include one of my personal favorite film noirs and one of the many “Big” movies; The Big Combo.
The setup is simple, and the details in between are anything but. The morality pendulum that accelerates the genre swings in different direction in The Big Combo; this isn’t your impassive stranger cornered into a criminal downward spiral, nor are there any scheming lovers (ala The Postman Rings Twice, Double Indemnity). Its focus is on a woefully cruel crime boss, his moll, and the obsessed cop on their tale whose motivations might not be purely motivated to uphold the law.
Richard Conte is the duplicitous Mr. Brown, the particular breed of criminal who’s not only evil but loves being evil; he’s cool enough to throw jabs at inquiring officers during a polygraph and flash a devilish smirk while devising new torture methods. When you string together the words “torture by hearing aid” it could sound silly, but they sell it in a genuinely painful scene that doesn’t wash off so easily.
Cornel Wilde is the stalwart Lt. Leonard Diamond, the inverted clean-cut image tailored to the likes of Glenn Ford in Lang’s The Big Heat. Diamond doesn’t have the picturesque domestic life, our snapshot of him outside the case is an affair with a burlesque dancer, and his interest on Susan (Brown’s mistress, and then Wilde’s wife Jen Wallace) grows into a perverted fixation. Diamond’s not in the mold of an anti-hero, nor is he the voice of reason; when the Crusaders and do-gooders rear their heads in these films, they feel like obtuse and out of place. In this world good guys finish last, and the nice need not qualify to the race.
Sometimes the permeant miasma around the already gray area between the gangster and noir genres makes us want to dispose of classifiers altogether, but Joseph Lewis’ punchy direction prescribes equally rationed doses of police procedural, and gangster politics, with the marriage unmistakable noir stylings. John Alton’s cinematography yields a steam bathed finale scene that is synonymous with the genre, and the pacing of the busy story hits hard and on point along the way.