The Big Combo (1955)


I love film noir. I’m borderline obsessed with it. So when I found out that The Midnite Drive-In was hosting a film noir blogathon, I got all excited! Right away, I knew I had to talk about Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955), a film that holds a very unique place in noir history.

The most famous image in film noir comes from The Big Combo, but nobody knows that. Strange but true. The final shot of the film seems to be everything film noir is about: the fallen hero, the femme fatale and the shadows and fog that envelop them. It’s the perfect shot. Only, in this case, Lt Leonard Diamond (Cornell Wilde) isn’t a fallen hero, and Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) isn’t a femme fatale. She’s far from it. She’s quite possibly the biggest victim in all of film noir. As the movie starts, she comes running down an alleyway, chased by two men. When they finally capture her, we begin to understand what’s happening: a certain Mr Brown (Richard Conte) somehow owns everything and everyone in town and he’s angry that she tried to escape from him. The police – more specifically Diamond, who can’t let the Mr Brown case go and has become obsessed with Susan – have been after him for months. He did something and they know it. They just haven’t got anything to go on. Except for his long-suffering girl Susan, who might just be the key to it all.

The supporting cast (or maybe this is an ensemble cast?) couldn’t be more awesome: Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman as Fante and Mingo, Mr Brown’s henchmen; Brian Donlevy as McClure, Mr Brown’s cowardly right hand man; Helene Stanton as Rita, Diamond’s part-time girlfriend; and Helen Walker as the elusive Alicia. Who’s Alicia, you ask? That’s what they all try to find out. With a great screenplay by Phillip Yordan, there are endless twists and turns along the way that culminate in a climactic ending.

My very first post on this blog back in September 2015 was about how underrated The Big Combo is. I actually called it ‘the most underrated movie ever’ and I still stand by that. It just seems to be one of those obscure films that only a handful of people know and I can’t understand why. It’s a great film and it contains literally the most iconic film noir shot ever. I mean, sure, it’s not as good as Double Indemnity (1944) or Out of the Past (1947), but it’s a pretty great film nonetheless and it deserves a lot more praise than it gets. And it was very daring for 1955, especially with regards to two aspects: Fante and Mingo are a homosexual couple; and at one point Mr Brown clearly performs oral sex on Susan. Well, not that clearly, but there’s no mistaking it!

I love the whole film, but my two favorite things about it are Richard Conte’s fantastic performance as Mr Brown and John Alton’s stunning cinematography. They are, to me, the film’s stars and I think they should have both been nominated for an Oscar. In fact, the film got no love from the Academy whatsoever. But unlike many films that didn’t and then gained popularity, The Big Combo continues to be underrated and overlooked. It’s a joyride of a film and one that needs to be pulled from gutters of obscurity and into the bright lights of mainstream as soon as possible.

34 thoughts on “The Big Combo (1955)

  1. Great post for a great movie. I agree with you, vastly underrated. Great cast and the movie looks fantastic. Robert Deniro has gotten so much praise over the years, but after seeing Richard Conte it’s seems to me that Deniro may have learned a thing or two from Conte.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So cool – I need to see this! You are so right, that is indeed an iconic film noir tableau…gotta love that fog!! Curtiz used fog in Casablanca and Mildred, Val Lewton for Seventh Victim, Cat People et al.

    Looks like a great film, can’t wait to check it out. And I love your elegant blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Whoa! I’ve never seen this, and only barely heard of it. Your review has me wanting to find it post-haste. (Also, I’m amused by the duo of Fante and Mingo, because this makes me realize that Joss Whedon pretty obviously tipped his hat to this film in Serenity with his twin goons Fanty and Mingo — that alone would make me want to see this.)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I am surprised to hear that my number one film-noir is underrated, but truly nothing should surprise me any more. I’ve watched too many film-noir and the shock has been kicked out of me.

    Your enthusiasm should surely encourage any who may have been letting this title slide in their movie viewing to rush to see it immediately. We know they will be amply rewarded.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree, this one is indeed unheralded, but very well done, with some really great noir moments. My favorite, which I won’t spoil (but you’ll know it if you’ve seen it), is a certain person’s death, done in silence…just awesome. Cool review, Carol!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Indeed, I recognize this iconic image from a book, but have never seen this film. I’ll do it very soon because: 1- for the love of puppies and kittens 2- I’m currently writing a longer piece on film noir and it’ll certainly help me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Gord

    I have this one, quite like it and watched it again a month or so ago. As with anything he photographed in b&w, John Alton’s cinematography so perfectly sets and keeps that dark noir atmosphere that makes the best of them so irresistable. Also for me, Richard Conte’s brilliant Mr. Brown is the male incarnation of Peggy Cummins Laurie in that other Joseph H. Lewis masterpiece “Gun Crazy” – pure, unadulterated evil both!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes! The cinematography in this is just stunning and brings everything together perfectly. John Alton is one of my all-time favorites.
      Yes, two wonderful characters. I love it when a noir character is so unapologetically evil. Jane Greer in Out of the Past comes to mind.
      Thank you! 😀


  8. Thank you for the review, Carol. Yes, Richard Conte should definitely be remembered for his fine performance in this film. Conte was a intense and unpretentious actor who later audiences likely remember for his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Also, Gordon Willis, the ace cinematographer who shot the Godfather trilogy and known as the Prince of Darkness, was likely strongly influenced by the extraordinary work of John Alton

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: PRIDE MONTH: Fante and Mingo from The Big Combo (1955) – The Old Hollywood Garden

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