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