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.