The Big Combo

Jean Wallace and Cornel Wilde in The Big Combo.
(© 1954 Security Pictures, Inc. and Theodore Productions, Inc. © renewed 1996 TV Matters B.V. All rights reserved.)

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The Big Combo (1955), Allied Artists' seedy B-noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy), now makes its debut on DVD. Image Entertainment's new disc contains no extras, but the film's video transfer looks sharp and the shadows captured by cinematographer John Alton's camera look ominous and threatening. The transfer obviously wasn't prepared from a restored materials, but this is the best The Big Combo has looked in many years.

The movie opens with Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) splashed in slanting shadows as she runs through tunnels beside a boxing ring. She's chased by two hitmen, Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman), who have been hired by her Napoleonic lover, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), to keep an eye on her. Cornered, she emerges from Alton's poetic darkness and agrees to stop running. By contrast, the hitmen remain in the dark, shapeless. Susan, centered in a spot-effect, looks stark, pale, and nearly naked.

Alton's "mystery lighting" imbues Susan's nakedness with the noir concerns of guilt and obsession. She's not a femme fatale, but Lewis and Alton's compositions and Wallace's characterization treat Susan as an obsessive female who needs to atone for sexual transgressions. Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde and Wallace's offscreen husband) is obsessed also. He has tracked Susan for months and spent his own money in his crazed pursuit to bring down Brown. He tells the captain, "If I could get a hold of her and make her talk."

Lee Van Cleef, Jean Wallace, and Earl Holliman in The Big Combo.
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Susan's guilt develops across multiple scenes. Following the elegiac opening, she meets Mr. Audobon (Roy Gordon), an old family friend, at a posh restaurant. Cryptically, Mr. Audobon comments, "Well you look so different, Susan. Why, I hardly recognized you." Susan says she hasn't changed, but director Lewis immediately cuts away to two hitmen sitting and eating. The juxtaposition of images undercuts her denials. As Susan and Mr. Audobon stroll across the dance floor, Susan, unable to run from herself, collapses: "I've taken some pills. I think I'm dying." Later, at the hospital, Susan's made to feel worse by Diamond who hounds her about Alicia (one of the film's narrative threads). Susan backs away, but Diamond hovers across the bed, "You think you're the bright respectable girl you were four years ago? You're not. You attempted suicide. You're under arrest. You can be sentenced to jail for six months." Diamond's words center around suicide but the real undercurrent of his accusations concern what Susan and Brown do in the dark.

Cornel Wilde and Helene Stanton in The Big Combo.
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Diamond's obsession slowly reaches Susan. Susan, in white, tries to reclaim lost innocence by listening to a private recital, but Diamond barges in and shocks her reveries. "You think this is mink, Miss Lowell," he asks, grabbing her furs. "These are the skins of human beings, Miss Lowell. People who have been beaten, sold, robbed, doped, murdered by Mr. Brown." She doesn't want to hear the truth, and Lewis and Alton reflect this mood by alienating Wallace from Wilde in a wonderfully staged two-shot. The performers look ahead, through the camera, rarely at each other. Separate but together, she offers her first confession: "I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond. A strange blind and blackened maze and all of the little twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown." Earlier she had told Brown, "I hate and despise you," but his power of lovemaking captivated her with noir's transgressive promise. Conte had followed her statement with kisses to her cheek, neck, and then traveled down, behind her body, as the camera dollied in for a stunning erotic close-up. Diamond follows her confession with one of his own. He tells her to get out, to save herself from Brown, and then he admits that he loves her. Susan breaks the mood of alienation. She turns and looks directly at Diamond.

Cornel Wilde and Helen Walker in The Big Combo.
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Her first direct look at Diamond becomes a committed second look following the brutal death of Rita (Helene Stanton), Diamond's on-and-off again burlesque-hall girlfriend. Susan visits Diamond at the police precinct with a photograph of Alicia. The thread is followed and they find Alicia (Helen Walker), Brown's estranged wife, at a sanatorium. Susan, in front of the police, Diamond, and Alicia pleads, "Haven't I humiliated myself enough?" Diamond says no one has done enough, and Susan provides her second confession, admitting before Alicia and a group of men that she was Brown's girl. Alicia acknowledges Susan's guilt and punishes her further, "Then why did you stay four years, why did you start?" Diamond asks Alicia to see the connection between herself and Susan, a younger version of herself. Alicia refuses to help and then Diamond shows her a photograph of Rita's bullet-riddled body. Alicia acquiesces and Susan, glancing at the photograph and guilty by association, crumples in tears, her transgressive sexuality punished.

DVD cover artwork for The Big Combo.
[click photo for larger version]

The film's ending, shot inside an airport hangar, is cathartic: Susan frees herself from guilt and Brown's gaze; Brown, who's responsible for the deaths of Rita, Fante, and Mingo and lived by the ruthless motto "First is first and second is nobody," is reduced to a nobody. As Brown paces inside the hangar and wonders where that "stupid pilot" is, Susan coolly lights a cigarette. Conte knocks the lighter free with a left hand, and then slaps her with his right. "I want to be seen," she says, and Brown threatens, "Don't try that again." Moments later, a police car pulls up, and Brown looks into the dark fog and retreats, sliding into a corrugated tin wall. Susan watches and sizes him up. Diamond's disembodied voice tells Brown to "C'mon out." He starts firing into the darkness and Susan adjusts the car searchlight and shines it on Brown. She seizes control of the mise-en-scene and ascertains somebody else's guilt besides her own. Brown is now totally undercut. Through a series of eyeline matches, he can't see anything, only fog, darkness, and bright glaring spots of light. He can no longer order the universe. Impotent, he fires at the beam but she keeps it shining. Emblematically, he no longer possesses her.

Framing and lighting render Brown powerless, and Susan, although cleansing her guilt by displacing it to Brown, remains passive, moving from one man to another. She watches Brown empty his gun and Diamond emerge, towering over the "little man." Diamond grabs him--"Let's go hoodlum"--and sends him sliding toward two police officers. Diamond then lingers in the hangar, his back to the camera, poignantly silhouetted, and Susan walks toward him. Backlit, in a majestic composition courtesy of cinematographer John Alton, they stand together, and as David Raksin's love theme swells, they exit into swirling fog. We are left contemplating a haunting image of sentimental toughness. Maybe there's hope for these two, even in a dark world called film noir.


The Big Combo is available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The DVD contains no extras. Full-screen format (1.33:1). Mono. Suggested retail price: $24.99. The Big Combo is also available on VHS for $19.98.