The CMBA “Fabulous Films of the ’50s” Blogathon: The Big Combo (1955)

How do I love The Big Combo? Let me count the ways.

Richard Conte. The sexy, jazzy score. The great screenplay by Philip Yordan. The righteous, passionate, intense detective played by Cornel Wilde and his obsession for the character portrayed by his real-life wife, Jean Wallace. The fact that I know about Don Loper, the designer of Jean Wallace’s wardrobe, because of an episode on I Love Lucy. Brian Donlevy’s over-the-hill, hearing impaired hood. The memorable use of shadows and light, courtesy of famed cinematographer John Alton. The impressive supporting cast that included Jay Adler, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, Helen Walker, Ted deCorsia, and John Hoyt. Oh, and did I mention Richard Conte?

Lt. Diamond is a righteous man.

Lt. Diamond is a righteous man.

The Big Combo focuses on Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde), a big city police detective with a dual obsession – he is consumed with a quest to bring to justice a certain mobster known as Mr. Brown (Conte), and he is equally fixated on a certain society beauty, Susan Lowell (Wallace), who just happens to – shall we say, belong? – to Mr. Brown.

Diamond’s efforts to nab Mr. Brown not only endanger his own life but also the well-being of those close to him – but that doesn’t stop this one-track-mind copper. Determined to unearth the one crime for which Brown could be charged, Diamond encounters a medley of shady characters, each of whom provide him with another piece to the multifaceted and deadly puzzle that is Mr. Brown (who, incidentally, is never referred to by anything except Mr. Brown).

Here’s more about the characters in this grim, complex, and fascinating entry from the waning years of the film noir era, and why I simply adore them.

Mr. Brown knows a thing or two about torture.

Mr. Brown knows a thing or two about torture.

  1. Richard Conte wears the character of Mr. Brown like an expensively tailored suit, spitting out his lines as if they’d done something personal to him. And it’s a fitting portrayal. Brown is self-absorbed, vicious, sadistic, and completely devoid of conscience. He demonstrates this in a particularly explicit scene, where he tortures Diamond, who’s been abducted by Brown’s hoods. First Brown blasts the volume in a hearing aid device that he places in Diamond’s ear. Then he forces him to drink hair tonic containing 40 percent alcohol. “Look at the drunken cop,” Brown observes wryly. “Isn’t that a shame.”

    Fante and Mingo: Just friends, right?

    Fante and Mingo: Just friends, right?

  2. Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play Fante and Mingo, two of Mr. Brown’s underlings. I have to mention here that I’ve read from countless sources that Fante and Mingo are gay. I’m not really sure how this conclusion was reached with such certainty – to me, they’re two hoods in the same gang – they’re clearly close friends, practically inseparable, they even sleep in the same room, but that’s all it is to me. I guess I’m just obtuse. In any event, there’s no denying that they’re riveting every time they’re on screen – Van Cleef always cold and implacable, Holliman a little childlike, but a ruthless killer just the same.

    Joe McClure gets no respect.

    Joe McClure gets no respect.

  3. Brian Donlevy’s Joe McClure is the Rodney Dangerfield of the organization – he gets no respect. This characterization is clearly illustrated in scene after scene – in one, McClure objects when Fante charges him a fee for the privilege of working Diamond over. “Didn’t Mr. Brown pay you?” McClure asks. And Fante responds, “You’re not Mr. Brown. For Mr. Brown, I’d snatch a judge from a Superior Court for a chocolate soda.” And later, Brown himself berates McClure after he kills a potential witness, and insists that he relinquish his gun. When he does, Mr. Brown responds: “See what I mean, Joe? Two seconds ago you had this gun in your hand. We’re all alone here. The thought of using it flashed through your mind. But you couldn’t. Yet you didn’t hesitate to use it on Dreyer. Because he was a little man, Joe. Like you, a little man.” You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.

    Helen Walker also had a small part in the film.

    Helen Walker also had a small part in the film.

  4. Minor characters in the film are memorably portrayed by Ted deCorsia and John Hoyt – both were only in a single scene and both played men from Mr. Brown’s past who were tracked down by Diamond. deCorsia played Bettini, a shipman who is able to tie Mr. Brown to the disappearance of his first wife. When Diamond turns up at his run-down apartment, Bettini is certain that he’s been sent by Mr. Brown: “I’ve been waiting for you a long time,” he says with an air of resignation. “You look like such a nice young feller. That Brown sure knows how to pick ‘em. I’d never have suspected. . . . Come closer – one shot ought to do it.” And during Hoyt’s brief time on screen, he manages to offer a well-drawn portrait of a hard-boiled antiques dealer, earning praise in the New York Times for his “dandy” performance.

And contributing to the greatness of the film behind the scenes were:

  1. David Raksin, who composed the film’s score. Raksin was known as the Grandfather of Film Music – he wrote the scores for more than 100 movies and 300 television shows, including Laura (1944), Forever Amber (1947), Force of Evil (1948), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Separate Tables (1958).

    David Raksin was known as the Grandfather of Film Music.

    David Raksin was known as the Grandfather of Film Music.

  2. Joseph Lewis, the film’s director. Lewis also helmed a number of other noirs, including two of my favorites, My Name is Julia Ross (1945) and Gun Crazy (1950). His nickname was “Wagon Wheel Joe,” a moniker he earned early in his career, when he helmed a number of Westerns for Universal; he had a tendency to shoot scenes through the spokes of wagon wheels, just to liven things up.
  3. Philip Yordan, the screenwriter. Born in Chicago, Yordan had a lengthy career that spanned the early 1940s through 1994. His many credits included House of Strangers (1949), Detective Story (1950), Houdini (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), and The Harder They Fall (1956). Yordan was responsible such memorable lines as these:
  • “What do you think this is, a homicide investigation? You’re dealing with the largest pool of illegal money in the world! You’re fighting a swamp with a teaspoon.” – Robert Middleton
  • “What is it about a hoodlum that appeals to certain women?” – Cornel Wilde

    "A woman only cares how a man makes love."

    “A woman only cares how a man makes love.”

  • “A woman doesn’t care how a man makes his living. Only how he makes love.” – Helene Stanton
  • 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 bad temper and a gun under your arm. With a big yen for a girl you can’t have. First is first and second is nobody.” – Richard Conte
  • “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane and dead.” – Helen Walker
  • “You took my job. You took my hotel. You though you could push me right off the earth. You punk.” – Brian Donlevy
  • “Nothing kills me. I’ll die in Stockholm like my great-grandfather, age 93. I’m not scared of anyone – including you.” – John Hoyt

    "Joe, tell the man I'm going to break him."

    “Joe, tell the man I’m going to break him.”

  • “Joe, tell the man I’m going to break him so fast he won’t have time to change his pants. Tell him the next time I see him he’ll be down in the hotel lobby crying like a baby and asking for a ten dollar loan. Tell him that. And tell him I don’t break my word.” – Richard Conte

Believe me when I tell you there isn’t a dull moment in this film – practically every character with more than a line brings something to the table that you don’t want to miss. It’s got everything – outstanding writing, direction, music, cinematography, acting – all wrapped up in a neat little noir bundle, just waiting for you to tuck it under your arm and make it your own. So what’re you waiting for?

You only owe it to yourself.

* * * * * * * * * *

This post is part of The CMBA Fabulous Films of the ’50s Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click the picture at the right to check out the many great posts being presented by CMBA members as part of this event! 

~ by shadowsandsatin on May 21, 2014.

40 Responses to “The CMBA “Fabulous Films of the ’50s” Blogathon: The Big Combo (1955)”

  1. What a superb review. Makes me want to grab th disc off the shelf and watch it right now.
    It’s a terrific noir. And Conte deserved an Oscar.

    • Thanks so much, Vienna! And I totally agree with you about Conte’s performance. I love him in everything, but this is at the top of my list, I think, along with New York Confidential. (Have you seen that?)

  2. Great review and this is a great film. Wilde, I thought, was a bit of a stiff but the rest of the cast is excellent. The film is both visually and verbally stunning. BTW it is in the dialogue between Fante and Mingo that slying suggest they are gay. One, I think it was Fante, says something like he can’t swallow any more salami.

    I write about this film in my new Film Noir ebook. (sorry, I am not so slyly mentioning my book, LOL)

    • Thanks, John — and thanks so much for your comment about the salami quote. That’s exactly what I mean when I say I don’t see how the conclusion has been reached that these two characters are gay — numerous sources I’ve read have cited that quote as one of the clear indicators. But Fante and Mingo were eating sandwiches at the time! They’d been stuck in a “bunker” for who-knows-how-long, waiting for Mr. Brown to arrive and get them the heck out of Dodge. They didn’t have a big variety of food, so they had to keep eating the same crappy sandwiches — which just happened to be salami. I just don’t see how today, almost 60 years later, we can deduce that Mingo expressing his distaste for more of the same kind of sandwich is actually a veiled reference to something else. If there’s some evidence of their relationship in the script notes, or anything from back in the day, that would be great. But this modern-day analysis — I just don’t get it. In fact, after numerous viewings of the film last night, I concluded that Mingo admired and looked up to Fante, and that Fante felt protective toward Mingo — that their relationship was a brotherly one. If anything, I would say that maybe Mingo even had a bit of a crush on Fante. But that’s all I see.

      • I understand what you are saying about modern day analysis but I still think it’s an honest interpretation (IMHO). The other suggestive scene in the film is of course when Conte is kissing Jean Wallace and his head goes lower and lower suggesting oral sex. Director Lewis talks about this scene in his interview with Peter Bogdanovich (Who the Devil Made It?) and how Wallace’s hubby, Wilde, who was off the set at the time, was upset and never forgave Lewis for filming his wife this way. Lewis was attempting to give Wallace a reason her character, a refined high society woman, was attracted to Conte’s crude gangster? The thrill of danger and sex. It’s really amazing it got passed the censors. My understanding is Lewis played dumb when he was asked by the censors about what exactly Conte’s character was doing.

        • How funny that Lewis acted like he didn’t know what Conte was doing in that scene. I’d never heard about Cornel Wilde being angry bout the scene — that is so interesting!

  3. I’ve not seen this, except for a few scenes in a documentary – one of which was the director discussing the scene John mentions above. Your great post is a reminder I’ve still got to see this one.

  4. An excellent review of an excellent film — it is indeed a stunner on every level (especially — if I had to call out one element — John Alton’s cinematography).

    I reviewed it recently on my own site, and in doing research, found that it was panned by The New York Times as ‘a sputtering, misguided antique’ (!!) — here’s that review, for those who are interested:

    http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9505E2D61E3FE33BBC4E51DFB566838E649EDE

    • Thank you for your comments! I’m glad you brought up John Alton’s cinematography — he is so good here, and he deserves a shout-out. And thank you so much for posting the link to that review — I absolutely LOVED it. The writer’s contemptuous digs were a positive scream. I think this was my favorite: “Philip Yordan, the scenarist, may know his shady lingo, but it would have been wonderful to have heard someone simply ask for the time and get a straight answer.” LOL

  5. You can watch “The Big Combo” hundreds of times and never be bored. I try to watch the story unfold through a different character’s eyes each time. It’s particularly interesting when seen from Sam’s perspective. Jay may be the best actor in his family.

  6. Great review with plenty of info on this film that should be better known.

  7. I’m a fan of Richard Conte (he played gangsters exceptionally well), so I’m surprised I haven’t seen this. Your spotlighted bits of dialogue indicate that the writing was sharp, so I’ll probably try to catch this the next time it’s on TCM.

  8. You did justice to this nifty film noir that deserves more attention. I love that you included some of its very quotable dialogue. Thanks, too, for the pic showing young(ish) tough guys Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman (I used the “ish” on “young” because I don’t think Lee was ever young!).

    • Thank you, Rick! I had to laugh out loud about the Lee Van Cleef “ish” comment — I saw him in a movie just the other night when he was the youngest I’d ever seen him, and he still looked world-worn and cynical! LOL

  9. This sounds like a great film, and it’s one that I have yet to see. Cornel Wilde just seems like the perfect copper and I’m glad to see that he had some meaty roles in the 1950s, rather than just swashbucklers. Great review!

    • Thank you so much, Constance — I thoroughly enjoyed Cornel Wilde in this one. I think it’s my favorite performance — he really sunk his teeth into it!

  10. Super review! Your enthusiasm for the film makes me really want to see this one. I had to laugh out loud at the Don Loper reference – I only know of him from I Love Lucy, too!

  11. This is such a great noir, and Alton’s cinematography is brilliant. He could sculpt space out of light. One of the most memorable scenes for me is Donlevy’s murder, when Conte yanks out his hearing aid so you don’t hear the gun shots. Utterly chilling. And just love those great lines you quoted.

    • I love your description of Alton that he could “sculpt space out of light.” So true. And that scene with Donlevy near the end is one of my favorites in all of noir. SO inventive.

  12. Karen, I cannot believe how many noir films I have not seen – and this is another one to add to the list. Honestly, your blog is the go-to source for noir selections.

    As for this contribution to the Fab 50s blogathon, I love it!

    I hope the DVD/online streaming companies are paying you royalties for promoting these films. I want to see each one you profile.

  13. You had me at “Fante & Mingo”! Great names, great casting!

    Great post about a movie that I knew nothing about! 🙂

  14. I haven’t seen “The Big Combo,” but it sounds like my kind of crime movie. On another note, I wouldn’t know who Don Loper is either, if not for Lucy.

    • I think you’ll love it, Patty! It’s funny about Don Loper — I rarely notice or know anything about designers (except maybe Jean Louis), but I really did like Loper’s work. Both in this movie and on I Love Lucy!

  15. this is a fave of mine too, love Conte here most, but what a great cast. good job

  16. I’ve loved the previous Joseph H. Lewis movies I’ve seen (My Name is Julia Ross and Gun Crazy), so I’m sure I’ll love The Big Combo too when I finally get around to seeing it. I remember reading an interview with Lewis about the film where he described Cornel Wilde flipping out after watching the racy-for-the-time kissing scene between his wife Jean Wallace and Richard Conte. Sounds like a fairly tense film shoot. Everyone says this movie has Conte’s best performance and I’m eager to see if they’re right. Thanks so much for the post, Karen. It’s always a treat to get one of your film noir reviews.

    • Thanks so much, Aubyn — you are the second person to mention Wilde being angry about the scene between his wife and Richard Conte. I am now on the hunt for this interview — I’d love to read it!

  17. This review has everything! Conte really was perfectly cast here and a very likable bad guy with a gun. (That’s rare!) Thanks for adding the extra touches with the backstory on the film down to the costumes, musical score.

    Not a dull moment in the film as you point out or the review. A perfect contribution to the Blogathon.
    All the best!
    Page

  18. I’ve never seen this movie, but I was smiling throughout your whole review because I can tell how much you love it. Those are some great quotes, especially the last one! You are always such a great source for new movie ideas, and as luck would have it I can get this from my library, which I will be doing soon. Thanks Karen!

    • Hi, Ginny! I hope you get to see it soon — I guarantee you are going to like it. If you think of it, please let me know what you think once you check it out.

  19. What a great, tough, brutal film. All the performances shine and the photography is as good as it gets, despite the lousy DVD transfer I saw it in. Wilde and Wallace followed up with another noir which he directed called “Storm Fear.” Underrated and underseen, highly recommended.

    • Thank you so much for reading, and for your comment. I totally agree about all of the performances being outstanding, no matter how small. I only saw Storm Fear once, years ago, but I remember it as being a very good, totally underrated movie. I think it’s time for a re-watch — I’m so glad you mentioned it!

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