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The Big Combo
The Big Combo
Actors: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Genres: Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense
NR     2004     1hr 24min

Platform:  DVD MOVIE Publisher:  ALPHA VIDEO Packaging:  DVD STYLE BOX Joseph H. Lewis' masterpiece The Big Combo stands alongside Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat as on...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Creators: John Alton, David Raksin
Genres: Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense
Sub-Genres: Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense
Studio: Alpha Video
Format: DVD - Black and White - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 10/26/2004
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 1hr 24min
Screens: Black and White
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English
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Member Movie Reviews

Lewis P. (Turfseer) from NEW YORK, NY
Reviewed on 10/24/2010...
More 'Dragnet' than 'Out of the Past'

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It's instructive to compare 'The Big Combo' with another detective film, 'Mystery Street', filmed earlier in 1950. Both films were shot by the great cinematographer, John Alton. Where 'Mystery Street' features a cool-headed detective finely played by a young Ricardo Montalban, 'The Big Combo's investigating officer is the hot-headed Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (with a stiff Cornel Wilde miscast in the role). Montalban's detective solves a difficult crime with finesse, always doggedly pursuing one clue after another until he arrives at a solution. In contrast, Wilde's Diamond is clueless from the beginning; he has nothing on Mr. Brown in terms of solid evidence and appears utterly impotent each time he has a face-to-face confrontation with the elusive psychopath.

At the beginning, we find out that Diamond has exceeded the police department's budget for investigating a case with no leads. In terms of today's money, the $18,000 would probably be equal to $180,000 and at the very least Diamond would have been taken off the case for mismanagement of police funds.

Like Mystery Street which featured ahead of its time CSI techniques, 'The Big Combo' tries to prove it too is relevant. The first 'gadget' is a tape recorder which Diamond uses to record his statement to the Commissioner about the funds used in the Brown investigation. That goes nowhere so we're then supposed to be impressed by Diamond's use of a lie detector after Brown agrees to be questioned. Brown's responses to Diamond's questions are hilarious (Question: Women? Brown: Expensive!). But more notable is the stupidity of Diamond's investigation techniques. The only clue he has to go on is 'Alicia'--the name Brown's girlfriend blurts out at the hospital after a suicide try. Is Diamond so stupid to believe that Brown is going to tell him who Alicia is and implicate himself in a murder? What's more Diamond is thoroughly unprofessional when he tells Brown at the hospital that he would like to 'cut him open' as if he were conducting an operation and is afraid to find out "what's inside". Even in the 50s, a loose cannon like Diamond would have been reigned in by his superiors.

During the lie detector test, Brown associates 'Spaghetti' with 'Betinni'. One wonders how the always-in-control Brown could make such a gaffe as it's an important clue that eventually leads to the crime boss's undoing. Betinni, an associate of Brown's former boss, disappeared after a warrant was issued for his arrest. Diamond has no idea where Betinni is, but lo and behold, after being 'tortured' by Brown and his minions and dropped off at his boss's doorstep, Captain Peterson, it turns out that Peterson knew all along where Betinni was hiding. As for the torture (some internet posters have laughably likened it to a scene from Tarrantino's 'Reservoir Dogs), it consists of Brown's use of his underling's hearing aid and a bottle of hair tonic (with 40% alcohol) which he manages to force down Diamond's throat.

Still with no clues, Diamond brings in the 96 suspects in Brown's organization for questioning (funny how Brown's 'organization' really seems to consist only of Joe McClure, the gangster wannabe now demoted to gopher, and two gay thugs, Fante and Mingo (more about that in a minute). Captain Peterson quite rightly blurts out, "Diamond, what am I going to do with you?"

The rest of the Big Combo plot emphasizes Diamond's utter inability to pin anything on Brown. Betinni's tip leads Diamond to antique dealer Nils Dreyer who used to be the captain of the yacht in which Brown and Alicia sailed on. Dreyer is murdered before he can spill any beans but leaves a photo in a bank deposit box, a more recent picture of Alicia. This time the CSI unit gets it right and is able to blow up the Alicia photo, proving that she's living in a sanitarium, only a few hours away. Alicia is about to remember who Brown murdered on the yacht but goes back to the looney bin after Brown shows up and says hello to her. Meanwhile, McClure tries to double cross Brown but Fante and Mingo turn on him and Brown blows him away (one can't forget the scene in which Brown takes out McClure's hearing aid and tells him that at least he "won't hear the bullets".) Finally, Brown double crosses Fante and Mingo by bringing them what looks like a box of money but is actually a stick of dynamite. Mingo is devastated when Fante is killed and agrees to testify against Brown, not for Diamond but for his beloved gay lover (the Big Combo does win points for suggesting that Fante and Mingo are gay which is unusual for a movie from the 1950s). Diamond finally tracks Brown down at an airport (where we never see a single plane) and places him under arrest (amazing how Diamond dodges all those bullets Brown fires at him!).

The Big Combo does have a few good things going for it. In addition to the sensational noirish cinematography, there is an undercurrent of dark sexuality running throughout the film's narrative. In addition to Mingo and Fante's 'different' relationship, Diamond becomes involved with a sexy show girl who ends up murdered on Brown's orders. Brown's girlfriend, Susan Lowell, a former classical pianist, also can't seem to shake off her physical attraction to her gangster boyfriend (despite the fact there is not one scene where the two show any good feelings toward one another).

On the other hand, in addition to the overly moralistic and implausible Lieutenant Diamond, the Big Combo is full of histrionic performances (I love how Brown weakly slaps the prizefighter and McClure flinches as if Brown had slugged the guy, at the film's beginning).

The Big Combo marks the end of the film noir anti-hero. Lieutenant Diamond is more the prototype for Sgt. Jack Friday of TV's Dragnet than Robert Mitchum's femme fatale victim in 'Out of the Past'.

Movie Reviews

A Forgotten Masterpiece Remembered!
jstark182 | Fresno, CA United States | 04/07/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)

"First and foremost I would like to congratulate and say thank you very much to IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT for having the sense to make available a great overlooked, and underappreciated classic on VHS and DVD. "The Big Combo" is one of the best film noirs ever made, and one of the best films of the 1950s. It is one of the most brutal films both visually and in its depiction of the violence that lies beneath the surface of society. It also has many great performances by Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde, and Conte's two psychopathic aids Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman. This is definitely a must-see for either fans of dark, violent films, or for fans of great artistic films also. I congratulate, applaud, and thank very much, IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT for remembering and making "THE BIG COMBO" available on DVD and VHS as it should be. Here are some forgotten classics that aren't available on video or need a better transfer, that definitely should: NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), GUN CRAZY (1949), BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), CRIME WAVE (1954), WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932), EDGE OF DOOM (1950), SCARLETT STREET (1945), THE RED HOUSE (1947), DETOUR (1945), CAUGHT (1949), THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1948)"
Mr. Brown.
jstark182 | 09/25/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Quentin Tarantino owes his career -- or what's left of it, anyway -- to Joseph L. Lewis' *The Big Combo*, from 1955. Fans of *Resevoir Dogs* will be surprised to see that the villain of the piece (a hissable Richard Conte) is named "Mr. Brown" (which was Tarantino's color-coded name in his own film). They will also be shocked to discover that Tarantino is something of a rip-off artist when they see the scene here where Conte and his goons torture a cop tied to a chair. In 1955, force-feeding someone booze, splashing it all over him, and cramming a hearing-aid into his ear with the other end attached to a radio was considered sufficient torture. In 1992, our sensibilities required the removal of the ear and splashes of gasoline. Progress. At any rate, my point is that *The Big Combo* was a very influential film noir among connoisseurs. It still packs a wallop. I take issue with the fellow from Canada below on several points. As for his sniping about the low budget here . . . yeah? So? If anyone can name a classic film noir that had an extravagant budget to play with -- with the possible exception of *Double Indemnity* -- I'd be interested to know about it. And my answer to his complaints about the dialogue is to suggest that perhaps he has confused *The Big Combo* with, well, *Double Indemnity*. I personally find the dialogue to be compact, lean and mean, and reasonably free of superfluous verbiage. (Unlike in Wilder's "classic", wherein insurance agents talk like lifelong Hell's Kitchen hoods, to say nothing of nattering voice-over narration.) There are certainly no page-long, single-space monologues in this movie. In any case, the absolutely stunning cinematography provided by the master John Alton should mute any misguided criticisms. This will be one of the best-shot black & white movies you will ever see. It ranks with the Expressionist milestones of Murnau and Welles. The pulsing alternation between shadow and sudden clarity is particularly impressive. A word of praise also goes to the performers: Jean Wallace is a walking blonde veneer steaming with sexual degredation beneath the surface; her real-life husband Cornel Wilde is the quintessential New York City detective. The supporting players are great, too. [The DVD is not so great. No extras, but who cares? -- it's the transfer that's really lacking. *The Big Combo* needs, and deserves, a thorough clean-up, in the Criterion tradition. We're still missing the entirety of Alton's photographic achievement with this product.]"
Tough, Muscular Film Noir
William Hare | Seattle, Washington | 02/26/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This is tough, muscular film noir delivered by a master of the genre, director Joseph Lewis, whose master touch in low budget mystery gave us the unforgettable "Gun Crazy." The camera work is excellent in this epic about a large city at night, when two obsessive men do battle for turf control, giving us a microscopic view of its fierce underbelly and the ferocious mobsters who tenaciously seek to control it. Cornell Wilde is a tough, uncompromisingly honest cop who is belittle by his equally determined adversary, Richard Conte, for being so bright yet ending up with such a small paycheck at the end of the week. Wilde has two reasons for bringing down the cocky Conte, that earlier expressed of seeking to make the city a more decent place with the mobster's loss of influence. The other is that he holds a passionate love for the beautiful blonde controlled in such a tight vise by Conte that she attempts suicide. The blonde is Wilde's real life wife, Jean Wallace, and Wilde is determined to pull her away from the egomaniacally dominating Conte before she is destroyed.For a large part of the film Conte laughs at Wilde, taunting him over his ineffectuality, telling him he is wasting his time attempting to put him away. This is largely a bluff, though, since he recognizes Wilde's zealousness and competence. At one point his henchmen kill a lovely young stripper going with the policeman, intending to terminate Wilde instead.Wilde is able to crack the case when he learns about the existence of Conte's wife, thought to be dead, played by Helen Walker. When Wilde gets the goods on the mobster and is ready to arrest him Conte begs his adversary to kill him. Wilde will have none of it, telling Conte that he will instead be tried, convicted, and sent to prison, where he will be a man devoid of power. Wilde knows that this is a much sterner punishment to Conte than death by execution."