The Big Combo


First is first and second is nobody.

As classic film noir moved into the 1950s, one noticeable change was the increased emphasis on stories involving mafiosi and various syndicates. If you consider that the movement was born out of changing moods and social circumstances in the US in the early 40s, then this shift is not altogether surprising. The whole issue of organized crime was back in the headlines and this concern seemed to have overtaken the more personal, individual angst that had dominated tales in the preceding decade. The Big Combo (1955) is based around such a premise, although it doesn’t really reveal any startling or particularly deep insights into the workings of the mob. But then that’s not the point of the movie, this being principally an examination of two obsessive men and the woman who stands between them; the fact that one is a cop and the other a mobster is mostly by the by.

Where more traditional crime sagas tend to chart the evolution of an investigation, The Big Combo eschews the slow build up and instead plunges right into the story at crisis point. The opening shot has a frantic Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), long time companion of mob luminary Mr Brown (Richard Conte), running through the anonymous and shadowy corridors of a boxing venue. This woman is obviously in a highly emotional state, and it’s no real surprise to learn that she has tipped a bottle of pills down her throat in a desperate suicide bid. This draws in the third figure in the triangle at the heart of the movie, Lt Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Diamond’s a driven man, his expenditure of time and money in a quest to bring Brown to book has brought censure from his superiors. However, Diamond isn’t merely a crusader against crime in the conventional sense; his pursuit of Brown is closely linked to his interest in Susan. So, when news of her hospitalization filters through, Diamond naturally seeks her out. Matters are clearly coming to a head for all concerned, and the root lies in a name – Alicia – that Susan has realized carries some special meaning for Brown. Diamond’s appreciation of this fact affords him the leverage he needs to force the tiny crack in Brown’s armour into something more substantial and damaging. Even so, the path is by no means free of obstacles – after all, he’s got nothing more than a name to go on. Before Diamond can piece it all together he will have to see witnesses conveniently disappear, undergo torture himself and inadvertently allow his lover to be gunned down. All the while though, the focus remains firmly on the personal battle between Brown and Diamond, with the issue of the former’s crimes only acting as something of a blind. In reality, it’s a duel to the finish motivated by both men’s desire to possess Susan.



The final fade out has become one of the most iconic images in film noir, stills derived from it appearing in just about every book dealing with the subject. The two figures frozen in silhouette against a background of glowing fog seems to perfectly capture the look and the essence of noir. This ought not to be any surprise due to the fact The Big Combo was lit and shot by the legendary John Alton. Of course it’s not the only memorable moment, the film is littered with shots that are beautifully composed and realized. Alton and director Joseph H Lewis managed to both disguise and turn to their advantage the small budget they had available. The movie boasts a significant number of basic, stripped down sets, yet the director and cameraman artfully cover these deficiencies through the use of clever lighting and framing. Backgrounds tend to dissolve into inky blackness as the key lights pick out and draw attention to the characters. Alton’s take on the dramatic potential of darkness and light is neatly summed up in this extract from Painting with Light (MacMillan, 1949):


To realize the power of light and what it can do to the mind of the audience, visualize the following little scene: The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air. Who is it? What is going to happen? Is he going to ring the bell? Or just insert a key and try to come in? Another heavier shadow appears and blocks the light entirely. A dim hissing sound is heard, and as the shadow leaves, we see in the dim light a paper slip onto the carpet. The steps are heard again…This time they leave. A strong light appears once more and illuminates the note on the floor. We read it as the steps fade out in the distance. “It is ten o’clock. Please turn off your radio. The Manager.”

I’ve mentioned the climax in the airport hangar, but there’s another wonderfully judged moment that takes place at the same sparse location earlier on. I guess what follows constitutes a mild spoiler, so anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film might want to skip over this part. Just as it appears Brown’s empire is crumbling, his subordinate McClure (Brian Donlevy) decides to step in and take advantage of the situation by having his boss assassinated. However, he miscalculates badly and finds the guns of the hitmen turned on him instead. McClure backs up against the wall, stricken with terror, but Brown assures him he doesn’t need to worry, he won’t hear the shots. McClure’s little nervous smile of relief is short-lived though. Brown jerks the hearing aid from McClure’s ear and steps away. The camera cuts to the gunmen and the now silent muzzle flashes of their tommy guns. Very simple and very effective.


Richard Conte was a fine villain in a number of noir pictures, and Mr Brown must surely rank as one of his best roles. He is the absolute epitome of cool arrogance and sadism, wearing a permanent smirk as he raps out Philip Yordan’s slick dialogue. The casual insolence he injects into the delivery is like a contemptuous slap in the face to whoever happens to be on the receiving end. It’s this overwhelming self-assurance and disdain for everyone that ultimately leads to his downfall, but it’s masterfully built up. His first encounter with Wilde in the hospital corridor sets the tone right away; not only does he insult and belittle his nemesis but he does so through an intermediary, not even deigning to address such an inconsequential figure directly. Wilde, on the other hand, plays a repressed and frustrated character. His frustration is twofold: his sense of professional impotence at failing to nail Brown despite investing so much time, money and effort, and his inability to compete on equal terms for the affections of Susan. I thought Wilde carried this off well, his emotions seething just below the surface and only held in check by his dubious morality. He covets Brown’s woman yet is simultaneously repulsed by his knowledge that her purity has been tarnished by her association with the mobster. On top of that, there’s his vaguely puritanical priggishness (note his comment about suicide breaking God’s laws) which is contradicted by his on-off relationship with a showgirl. As the object of Wilde and Conte’s obsession, Jean Wallace didn’t come across so successfully. There’s a blank quality to her performance although, in fairness, that may be intentional as she’s clearly supposed to be a character near the end of her tether psychologically. Wallace was married to Wilde at the time, and it seems he was less than pleased at the infamous scene where Conte starts kissing her neck and then continues working his way down as the camera zooms in on Wallace’s face. This also raised concerns as it was pushing the limits of the production code of the time. When questioned about where Conte went as he descended from view, Joseph H Lewis replied: “How the hell do I know? What does an actor do when you move in on a close-up of someone else? Go sit down somewhere, I guess.” In addition to that, the movie also features a couple of hitmen (Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman) who, while it’s never explicitly stated, are clearly involved in a homosexual relationship – strong stuff for a 1955 production.

The Big Combo is one of those films which has been poorly served on DVD. Although none of the available editions are truly awful, they aren’t especially satisfying either. I understand the US release by Image may offer the best transfer but I don’t have that one to comment for sure. I used to own a weak Geneon disc which displayed a fair bit of combing and motion blur but replaced it with a Spanish release by Sogemedia/Regia. This disc doesn’t have the combing issues but it’s still only a low-medium grade transfer. The biggest problem is a general haziness and softness that dilutes the work of Lewis and Alton. I continue to cling onto the hope that someone, somewhere will see fit to release this great film with a restored image and in the correct aspect ratio. Leaving aside the less than stellar DVD presentations, I can’t praise the movie itself highly enough. The dialogue, plotting and photography are all pure noir, and the two strong central performances ensure it’s a film worth revisiting.


36 thoughts on “The Big Combo

  1. Really good and well-written review, I’d never heard of this film before reading your review so it is good becuase I have discovered a new film to watch when I get the chance.


  2. A fine tribute to a classic 50s Noir Colin – and as always I learned something new here as the homoerotic subtext between the two henchmen had completely eluded me – even after seeing it several times all these years. I have to watch it again really soon just for that!

    It’s a great movie which to me has always stuck out for its abstract, fairy tale quality, right from its emblematic shots of Wallace (Mrs Wilde in private life) on the run through pools of light and shadow and I love the brassy music by David Raksin too, a million miles away from his score for Laura. Along with DETOUR, this is the Noir that perhaps more than any other I covet on a really good Blu-ray …

    Here’s a high res scan of that iconic final image you mentioned:


    • Cheers Sergio. I had wanted to make mention of Raksin’s great score but somehow it slipped my mind in the writing. Glad you brought it up though. Funny thing is, that kind of heavy jazzy scoring seems to be lodged in a lot of people’s minds as emblematic and typical of film noir. The reality, however, is that few classic noir pictures feature such music. I don’t quite know how that misconception came about.

      As for the implied relationship between Van Cleef and Holiman’s characters, it becomes more obvious as the film progresses. You can see it in the lead in to the interrogation/torture scene, and it’s more pronounced when both of them are holed up in the basement towards the end. I’ve read comments about this so many times that I guess I started to look out for evidence. If I hadn’t been informed of its presence then maybe it would have passed me by too.


      • The music thing is amusing, isn’t it? Whenever you get a comedy pastiche in black and white it’s lush strings and a sexy sax – and yet really this belongs to the era of Jerry Goldsmith’s CHINATOWN (1974), David Shire’s FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) and perhaps finest of all, John Barry’s BODY HEAT (1982). You could never confuse these for Roy Webb’s score for OUT OF THE PAST or Miklos Rozsa’s comparatively restrained DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Raksin’s music is wonderfully bold and direct but, as you say, is fairly atypical, though it looks forward to Mancini’s scoring of TOUCH OF EVIL, the film that more or less polished off the classic Film noir cycle three years later.


        • Yeah, the brassy, jazzy association comes from later on. I sometimes wonder if television, and I’m thinking especially of shows like Johnny Staccato and Peter Gunn, helped shape opinions of what a noir score should sound like.


          • I think you’ve got something there given that Mancini’s PETER GUNN theme was such a massive hit and it’s bold, insistent theme is highly reminiscent of COMBO. Elmer Bernestein’s original STACCATO theme was clearly in imitation of it (as was the whole show, let’s face it) though the theme used for the second half of the series, which is much cooler and piano led and less brassy is much more distinctive. The 5 episodes directed by Cassavetes himself, especially a three-hander featuring only Elisha Cook Jr and a very young Cloris Leachman, is absolutely sensational.


            • I’m extraordinarily fond of both those shows, must-see material for any noir/crime fan in my opinion.
              I don’t know if you’re familiar with M Squad, with Lee Marvin, but that’s another extremely cool show and it also features a great score – Count Basie no less. I’m currently working my way through the big box set, slowly.


                • Episodes run around 25 minutes. Personally, I’m enjoying it a lot, of course I’m a fan of Lee Marvin and love pretty much everything he did.
                  The PQ is variable to be honest, the majority of the episodes are reasonable – never what you’d term great – but be aware that a handful are rough. I understand Timeless had to rely on fans sending in copies of these very weak episodes as there was no other option if they wanted to release a complete series run.

                  There’s at least some of the show on YouTube if you want to check it out.


                  • Cheers Colin (and thanks for cleaning up the partial double post) – that YouTube clip looks pretty good to me, thanks very much (and it’s got Mr Spock in it too!). Technically superlative releases like STACCATO, TWILIGHT ZONE and THE UNTOUCHABLES can generate perhaps unrealistic expectations when it comes to PQ but I have to admit, it can be really important to me. I know it shouldn’t …


                    • Yes, in some ways we’ve been spoiled by a number of very strong transfers. Unfortunately, not everything is going to look as good though. As I said, bar maybe a half dozen or so episodes, M Squad is what I’d term acceptable. A pity it’s not in better shape, but that’s how it is.
                      I know what you mean though, really rotten presentations do take away from the enjoyment of a film/show – if it’s bad enough you just can’t ignore it.


                    • I am one of those people that gets pernickety about aspect ratios and so on – to misquote ANNIE HALL, ‘pernickety’ is probably a nice word for what I am on the issue in fact …


                    • Yep, incorrect aspect ratios bug me too. When you get used to seeing things done properly it’s harder to accept below par presentations. Having said that, if it’s the only way to see something I can grin and bear it.


                    • Colin,

                      I’m definitely not anywhere near as well versed in the noir realm as you and Sergio are. I’ve only seen a dozen or so films in that genre. In a way, though, I’m glad, as it gives me a new universe to explore, and I definitely appreciate these films and their moral shadings more now as a cynical fortysomething. THE BIG COMBO is one of those cornerstone titles I’ve never seen, and your great write-up has definitely amped up my interest.

                      M SQUAD is a neat show (how could I not love a series with Lee Marvin in the lead?) and a welcome release from Timeless, even if the prints are of variable (in some cases poor) quality. I agree that the STACCATO and UNTOUCHABLES sets look glorious. I have the PAL PETER GUNN season 2 set and it looks quite good as well (and offers uncut episodes, something the Region 1 sets failed to do). All very cool shows, glad to see others out there that appreciate them.


                    • Hello Jeff. I’m kind of envious that you have so many great movies still ahead of you when it comes to noir. It’s a style that’s really addictive once the bug bites and, although I got into it quite young myself, I agree it certainly loses none of its impact as one gets older. Of course lots of stuff gets marketed as noir even though it isn’t, and I’m speaking as someone who takes a pretty inclusive view.

                      And yes, it’s always good to see the popularity of those old crime shows hasn’t waned.


                    • I only have the season 1 set of PETER GUNN – glad to hear year two is also worth getting – cheers Jeff!. Film Noir is a world to revel in – really looking forward to reading what you think of it. I’m sure Colin could be persuaded upon to come up with a top 25 DVD list …


                    • I’m sure Colin could be persuaded upon to come up with a top 25 DVD list …

                      Is that a challenge? 🙂
                      I could easily compile such a list, but then I’d likely change my mind and make a different one within the half hour.

                      And I second Jeff’s recommendation of the second season of Peter Gunn too, every bit as good as the first.


                    • Shall definitely see about getting season 2, thanks gents. I only made it as far as my Film Noir top 10 but if 25 seems too few … how about 50? it’s a nice round number …


  3. Thanks, guys! I’m definitely looking forward to checking some of these classic noirs out! Off the top of my head, I’ve seen DOUBLE IDEMNITY, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, DARK PASSAGE, HIS KIND OF WOMAN, LADY IN THE LAKE, THE BIG SLEEP and MURDER, MY SWEET (if these detective movies can be fully classed as noir), THE BIG HEAT, and a handful of others. I have OUT OF THE PAST and CRISS CROSS on DVD but haven’t watched them yet. Any others you guys particularly recommend would be most welcome.


    • Right. Seeing as Sergio mentioned 50, let’s give this a shot. I won’t necessarily call it a “top 50” as you’ve already got/seen a few that I would have included. So, in no particular order:

      1 The Killers
      2 In a Lonely Place
      3 Scarlet Street
      4 The Woman in the Window
      5 Sunset Boulevard
      6 The Asphalt Jungle
      7 Sorry, Wrong Number
      8 This Gun for Hire
      9 Ministry of Fear
      10 Phantom Lady
      11 The Night of the Hunter
      12 Brute Force
      13 Night and the City
      14 Laura
      15 Fallen Angel
      16 Where the Sidewalk Ends
      17 The Big Clock
      18 The Third Man
      19 Odd Man Out
      20 The Dark Corner
      21 Body and Soul
      22 I Wake Up Screaming
      23 Force of Evil
      24 Touch of Evil
      25 T-Men
      26 Nightmare Alley
      27 The Killing
      28 Side Street
      29 Raw Deal
      30 Cry of the City
      31 Journey into Fear
      32 Odds Against Tomorrow
      33 White Heat
      34 The Hitch-Hiker
      35 Angel Face
      36 Road House
      37 Act of Violence
      38 While the City Sleeps
      39 Detour
      40 Leave Her to Heaven
      41 DOA
      42 Kiss Me Deadly
      43 The Narrow Margin
      44 The Set-Up
      45 Pickup on South Street
      46 The Reckless Moment
      47 Niagara
      48 Thieves’ Highway
      49 Kiss of Death
      50 High Wall

      How’s that for starters? I tried to limit it to movies that can actually be obtained on disc somewhere and, with a few exceptions, to US noir.
      Feel free to get back to me to agree/disagree, express incredulity or outrage that I included/excluded anything etc.


  4. Great list, Colin – thanks! From your list, I’ve seen THIS GUN FOR HIRE, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, LAURA, THE THIRD MAN, KISS ME DEADLY, D.O.A. and NIAGARA; the rest will be new to me. Will add a bunch of titles to my wishlist ASAP.


  5. I had the pleasure of seeing this on a big screen in an old Los Angeles movie palace this past February. The images are unforgettable! I also loved the jazzy score and the opening credits.

    Colin, I really enjoyed reviewing your list of “starter noir”! An impressive list with many of my favorite noir titles 🙂 (I still need to see at least 20 of these myself!) I’d add a couple of personal favorites, BLACK ANGEL and THE BRIBE. (Glad to see HIGH WALL made your list!) I’d also add JOHNNY O’CLOCK but alas, it’s not on DVD yet.

    Best wishes,


    • Hi Laura. I’d love to have seen The Big Combo projected on the big screen – it should look great.

      Good suggestions for inclusion too. There are so many fine and enjoyable noir pictures out there that it’s almost impossible to compile a list, isn’t it? But this is good too as there are always titles to discover or reassess.


  6. Good list. I watched Where The Sidewalk Ends recently and was very impressed with Dana Andrew’s tough cop, slightly disappointed his character took a “wrong turn” so early in the movie. I’m not so keen on Fallen Angel, Preminger’s camera work is more interesting than the threadbare plot.

    I also watched Big Combo after reading your interesting piece, the scene where Conte starts kissing the heroine’s neck etc was startlingly frank. And after we’ve been given hints about Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef’s relationship, Holliman’s complaint to his friend (“I can’t swallow any more salami.”) is pretty funny.


    • Thanks bosque.
      I like all of Preminger’s noir pictures, and those with Dana Andrews in particular. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth getting too hung up on the plotting in noir generally – often it’s too dense and twisty and takes at least two viewings to get things straight, or else it’s slight and not so logical. What carries film noir along is a combination of performances, direction and that almost indefinable style, if the writing’s good than that’s a bonus for me.

      That line you mention by Holliman in The Big Combo comes during the basement scene near the end, if I remember correctly. And yes, it is pretty loaded.


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  8. Thought this was great – the low budget was no hindrance, rather a benefit if anything as it allowed for those minimalistic sets and shadowy backdrops as though the world’s closing in on the characters. I thought Richard Conte was really terrifying and surprisingly lacking in predictability, so that I never knew exactly what he was going to do, almost expecting violence for instance in the kissing scene with Jean Wallace.


    • Yeah, low budget sometimes gets used in an extremely negative way, doesn’t it? There’s no real reason why that ought to be the case though and movies like this prove that point. A clever and talented director and cameraman can use a sparse budget to their advantage to create, like you said, a more claustrophobic atmosphere for example.
      As for Conte, he had a great explosive quality about him that this film draws upon very successfully.


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    • Actually, Gord, in the time that’s passed since I wrote that piece a very good widescreen version has been released on both DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films – I really ought to amend some of these things I’ve written if/when my remarks about availability or quality have changed. Sorry if you were misled there.


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