A fast-paced crime thriller; with a great combination of noir motifs, both visual and verbal. Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown is a superb criminal type. Ruthless, yet superficially classy; controlling his minions and girlfriend like so many toys. And when he gets tired of his toys, he throws them out. Unlike his misanthropic muscle guys, Susan (Jean Wallace) wants to get away from him, to the point of attempting suicide.
Brown’s rat-a-tat-tat speech mirrors his bullying, relentless personality. Especially memorable is a scene right after Susan gets out of the hospital, when he attacks her by demanding to know what she was thinking, lets her know she’s wearing the wrong thing, and then brushes her off completely with “We’ll talk about love some other time.” The mystery of his missing wife Alicia (Helen Walker) resolves itself as we learn she has faked insanity to get away from him. That Lt. Diamond (Cornell Wilde) has figured her fate to have been the victim of an exotic murder-at-sea plot keeps suspense brewing. That the actual victim was an ex-boss anticipates the subsequent murder of McClure (Brian Donlevy), another guy he worked for.
One of many fogged-in scenes, McClure’s murder forms part of the storm of violence as the movie accelerates to its end. There’s a war of light and shadow throughout: dimly lit, smoky, foggy alleys, walls, buildings, and staircases; lampshades making faces into ghostly masks, spotlights and headlights piercing the dark lo pinpoint the human roaches seeking escape. All of this masterful expressionist stuff plays against a sunny spacious tourist’s panorama of the city at the movie’s beginning. The music adds a jarring dimension with jazzy bits both enhancing and mocking the gritty atmosphere. There’s a haunting scene with Diamond playing the piano–as he tries to get Susan to open up about Brown–skillfully showing the blending of the sophisticated with the sordid.
As we’re hustled to the denouement, Brown shows the ultimate touch of his clever brutality by leaving a ‘gift’ for his guys–sticks of dynamite. Despite the quintessential noir pessimism that The Big Combo draws so successfully, at least Diamond and Susan are able to leave the final ugly scene; scarred, but intact and together. They’ve both been victimized by Brown; they’re indeed as righteous as Brown said in his earlier disparaging assessment of Diamond.
Stylistically, this is noir at its best. Considering that it comes after the genre peaked in the late ’40s/early ’50s, it’s surprising that the overall feel, not to mention the carefully worked-out details showed such fidelity to earlier noir films. Actually, owing perhaps to a limited budget that necessitated some stock footage, early street scenes look to be nearly ten years out of date. Not a big deal, but for a history and automotive geek like me, I can’t help noticing the ’40s cars (the ’47-’48 Ford police cars for example), with nothing newer. Later on, it’s definitely 1955.
The Big Combo is not to be missed for the fan of film noir. 10/10.