Made in 1955 by Poverty Row studio Allied Artist (Monogram’s banner for their upgraded products) on a paltry budget, The Big Combo garnered mediocre reviews upon its release. The contemporary NYTimes review went so far as to call the picture “a shrill, clumsy and rather old-fashioned crime melodrama” and “a sputtering, misguided antique.” Harsh words for a movie that is considered a classic today, and not at all justified either. But then we have the benefit of hindsight now.
By 1955 the Noir cycle was coming to an end. The 50s saw Expressionist visual poetry replaced by a more realistic semi-documentary approach with emphasis on natural lighting. Combo is a throwback, it’s one of the last great 40s Noirs, made in the 50s.
One of the stars of Combo is John Alton’s brilliant photography. He gives us a masterclass on Noir style, utilizing his entire Noir bag of tricks. Deep shadows, high contrast lighting, dimly lit back alleys, canted angles and sets that are near empty, oftentimes just semi-realistic and seemingly lit only by cigarette butts. Alton turned a buck fifty budget into a virtue, creating a surreal dreamy mood piece that is visually one of the last pure Noirs. The deserted corridors of the boxing arena shrouded in darkness and the empty concert house for the piano recital are almost stripped to the bones abstractions.
Cornel Wilde stars as Leonard Diamond, a cop with one mission in life: to take down untouchable kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). He’s not just single-minded about it, he’s a man obsessed. His zeal borders on fanatic. Diamond is on a crusade. Caught in the middle between the two men is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), Brown’s moll, who Diamond has the hots for. But Susan seems to be completely under Brown’s spell…
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, Combo is a movie that’s decidedly character-driven. It’s brimming with fascinating characters. The plot is negligible. Cop hunts robber. We’ve seen it all before. It’s probably why the NYT considered it stale. They just neglected to dig a little deeper and took it all at face value.
Lewis’ last movie Gun Crazy didn’t separate between sex and violence, in Combo it’s sex and power that seem to be interchangeable. Really, the whole movie is about sex, sex and more sex. Everybody’s demons seem to rest on it. It’s all not-so-discreet.
Combo is a movie about obsessions. Brown is obsessed with power, Diamond is obsessed with Brown and his moll, Susan is obsessed with kinky sex. There’s an incredible seediness and perversity about it all. Any shrink would have a field day with the twisted love triangle, or quadrangle, of the protagonists.
It is Richard Conte who carries the movie. Unfailingly suave, vicious, without conscience and an arrogance that knows no bounds, Mr. Brown is obsessed with power and always being No.1: “First is first and second is nobody” is his maxim. He gives the audience a little lesson on his personal philosophy. Hate. It’s life’s great motivator:
“What makes the difference? Hate…Hate the man who tries to kill you. Hate him until you see red and you come out winning the big money. The girls will come tumbling after.”
Brown drops a boxer he’d backed when the kid loses a fight, simply because he lacks that all-important killer instinct. He despises most people including his insecure second-in-command - and former boss - Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) who he continuously humiliates mercilessly as a “little man”. Nobody is allowed to stand in Brown’s way and whoever does must die.
Hate is what keeps Brown warm at night…and his mistress Susan. Brown is quite proud of his prowess with women. Susan used to be a high society girl with ambitions to become a concert pianist. She would love to go back to that life, but instead she’s been sinking further into the gutter quite frankly because sex with Brown is so good! The movie leaves no doubt that Brown holds Susan in an erotic thrall. Brown is a sadist, he literally owns Susan. When she’s not with him he has her shadowed. She’s sexually drawn to Brown despite his possessiveness. Or maybe just because of it. Brown has her emotionally and sexually hypnotized. THAT way-ahead-of-its-time love scene - suggesting oral sex - with Susan’s ecstatic face leaves no doubt about it. Susan despises herself for her weakness. She can’t admit why exactly she stays with Brown. She doesn’t need to, we get the message anyway.
The PCA collectively had a conniption and wanted the scene cut, but Lewis steadfastly maintained that there was no proof of any sexual activity. It was all in the censors’ dirty minds.
Brown has the obsessive Diamond pegged alright too. With uncanny psychological insight he lays a finger on what keeps Diamond up at night. Hiding behind a facade of righteousness is a man eaten up by jealousy:
“Diamond, the only trouble with you is you’d like to be me. You’d like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You can’t. That’s impossible. You think it’s money. It’s not. It’s personality. You haven’t got it, Lieutenant – you’re a cop. Slow, steady, intelligent…With a big yen for a girl you can’t have.”
Brown has everything, Diamond only has dumpy digs and $96.50 a week. There is something incredibly impotent about Diamond’s rage against Brown. Diamond has been blowing paycheck after paycheck on trailing Susan around the country for six months, ostensibly in order to catch Brown. She isn’t even aware of his existence! File that under stalking now. He has nothing to show for his efforts. It’s less the cop’s sense of justice that makes him hunt the mobster, Diamond’s private vendetta rests purely on his personal libido problem. He may not want to admit it to himself, but this is his true motivator for putting Brown behind bars. Actually, if Diamond could, he’d rather castrate Brown than lock him up. It’s a seriously twisted set-up.
Diamond is not only humorless, he’s a self-righteous prick to boot. When he sees Susan in a fur coat, he lays the moralizing on really thick: ”You think this is mink, Miss Lowell…These are the skins of human beings, Miss Lowell!”. Frankly, Brown may be a sadist killer, but he’s at least not a sanctimonious hypocrite. I rooted for him.
Diamond however isn’t quite as straight-laced and upright as he would like to have the world believe. He’s in a sort of “relationship” with a sexy stripper, make that burlesque dancer, that would now be called friends with benefits. Rita is clearly in love with him, she’d like to be something more than the occasional booty call. She is wise beyond her years and has more honest insight into human relationships than anybody else in the film. She tells Diamond outright: “A woman doesn’t care how a man makes his living. Only how he makes love.”
Helen Stanton is phenomenal in a small role that could easily have been just another cliched variation on the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold. She infuses Rita with a genuine integrity that all the other characters seem to lack. In the most upsetting scene of the movie Rita gets killed in a hit in Diamond’s apartment in a case of mistaken identity. The bullets were for him. Diamond tries to show some kind of regret after her death. “I treated her like a pair of gloves” he says. But it doesn’t sound very sincere. Susan is all that’s on his mind. The guy doesn’t know how good he has it. Rita has Susan beat on every level. But ya can’t fix stupid.
Cornel Wilde was an actor of limited range, he was always rather stiff and wooden and is really no match for Conte. But if Wilde was a limited actor, Jean Wallace - as the good girl gone bad - was no actress at all. She was Wilde’s real-life wife (he also co-produced) and that’s the reason she got cast. She’s pretty but rather vapid, spineless and without much personality. It’s hard to believe she has two men fighting over her. She isn’t a femme fatale either. She doesn’t have the manipulative instincts and guts for it.
Oddly enough, there’s only one healthy relationship in the movie. The one between the two gay henchmen Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) who are an strangely likable pair for all their brutality and ruthlessness. They are inseparable, loyal to each other and live in happy self-contained domesticity.
Combo has quite a few memorable scenes, like Brown’s subtle negotiation tactics which include Diamond’s torture by hearing aid and hair tonic.
Also the chilling execution scene of Brown’s deaf lieutenant McClure. Brown informs the deaf man that he won't have to hear the gun fire that’ll kill him. He yanks out McClure's hearing aid and the soundtrack goes silent simultaneously. We see the gun fire but can only hear what McClure can hear, nothing.
The finale is a riff on Casablanca. In a hangar shrouded in thick fog, Diamond finally has Brown cornered. It is Susan who is Brown’s downfall. She shines a big spotlight on him, thus exposing him and figuratively his sins. Like a vampire, Brown is disorientated. Diamond doesn’t even mercifully kill him, Brown is being dragged away by two policemen, finally transformed into a nobody.
Diamond and Susan venture out onto the airfield together, beautifully silhouetted against the swirling fog. Lovely and iconic as the shot is, I'm afraid it's gonna be a tepid affair.