Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) is an evil sadistic gangster. At one time he was the bookkeeper for a big crime boss called Grazzi. Now Brown is running the show while his boss is living in Italy. He’s the kind of guy whose face you want to push in with a truck. Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) has been trying to take him down for the last six months. Diamond’s boss Captain Peterson (Robert Middleton) wants him to give up his crusade. Expenses have gotten too high and produced nothing. Diamond is becoming obsessed with catching Brown in the act. He’s even having Brown’s girlfriend Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) followed. When Susan tries to commit suicide she is brought to the hospital. In her delirium she mumbles the name Alicia.
Diamond has everyone connected with Brown picked up and questioned. Even Brown is questioned and given a lie detector test. He reacts to the name Alicia but Diamond is no closer to finding out whom she is and where she is.
Brown has his minions Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) kidnap Diamond. Brown tortures him and makes him drink alcohol based hair tonic but doesn’t leave a mark on him. Brown’s second in command Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) watches. When they are done with him they deposit him at Peterson’s apartment to make it look as if he was drunk on duty.
During Brown’s lie detector test he mentioned another name. Bettini (Ted de Corsia). When Diamond tracts him down he finds out that Alicia was Brown’s wife. She ended up being a lush. He believes Brown killed her while on a private boat heading for Sicily with Brown’s partner Grazzi.
Diamond’s investigation turns up another witness, murder, revenge, betrayal and more than a few twists and turns.
“The Big Combo” was released in 1955 and was directed by Joseph H. Lewis. It is a crime film and a film noir. The cinematography was done by the master of light John Alton. He photographed some of the best noir movies. He wrote the book “Painting with Light” in 1949 which illustrated his techniques. The music was done by David Raksin. He did the music theme for “Laura” 1944.
I’m not sure how this movie got past the censors. There are so many Production code issues in it. Granted some of them are implied but some are a little more open. The torture of Detective Diamond with the hearing aid is clearly evident. The implication that women like oral sex is a little more couched but not much. The undertones of the homosexual relationship between Fante and Mingo are much more subtle.
Jean Wallace, the recipient of said oral sex insisted that the scene be shot when her husband was not on set. Her husband at the time was Cornel Wilde. Wilde was not pleased. He accused Lewis of taking advantage of his wife.
Originally the film was called “The Hoodlum” and was based on a story by Philip Yordan. The film was co-produced by Security Pictures, owned by Yordan and Sidney Harmon, and Theodora Productions which was owned by Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace. Wilde changed the films name to “The Big Combination” and Jean suggested it be shortened to “The Big Combo”.
The highlights of this noir classic are Alton’s cinematography and pushing the boundaries of sex in cinema. It’s a very visual film. One other aspect of the film that was a little different from noir in the past was the music score done by David Raksin. Instead of the usual stringed orchestral accompaniment Raksin used a more jazzy brass style with trumpets and oboes which blends quite well with the entire noir theme.
The film may have been made toward the end of the noir period but it managed to add a few new aspects to the noir style. It’s on more than one top ten list of the best of film noir.