Classic Corner: The Big Combo

Unless you’re engaging in actual, tangible research using scientific methodology, you can really only theorize about what’s penetrating your bubble – but in my bubble, my cordoned-off little corner of Film Twitter and film critic discourse, it feels like Joseph H. Lewis is having a moment. I’m not proposing that we’re just now discovering him, of course; the prolific B-movie filmmaker has been championed since the unfurling of the auteur theory in the 1960s, recognized as both a stylist and a craftsman who brought ingenuity and dazzle to his low-budget thrillers, Westerns, and (especially) films noir.

But over these past few months, as my colleagues and fellow film obsessives have spent so much of our time stuck indoors and exploring old movies, I keep seeing people discovering and championing his work. Some of it is just coincidental timing and programming. The Criterion Channel’s second round of “Columbia Noir” dropped in April, and was thus scheduled long before lockdown, but Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross turned out to be a sublime piece of quarantine viewing, a dreamlike throwback “this can’t be happening” nightmare, its quicksilver 64-minute running time perfect for decreased covid-concerned attention spans. Over the summer, Amazon Prime added Terror in a Texas Town, Lewis’s final film, a deliciously lurid Western with a magnificent Sterling Hayden performance at its center. And around the same time, the Criterion Channel added a double bill of Lewis’s beloved, hyper-sexual lovers-on-the-run picture Gun Crazy (1950) and his 1955 noir masterpiece The Big Combo.

The first and most important thing to know about The Big Combo is that it was shot by John Alton, the quintessential noir cinematographer whose paintings of light and shadow brought similar vibrancy and mystery to such classics as T-Men, He Walked by Night, and Raw Deal. There are images and compositions in The Big Combo that you want to freeze on the screen and slap a frame around; the first of them comes early in the picture, as the opening credit images of flashing neon lights and wide cityscapes home in on a municipal auditorium (“BOXING TONITE”), and then the shadows and smoke created by a handful of loiterers out back. It’s the kind of moment that a million lesser directors and photographers would’ve flitted by with nary a second thought; Lewis and Alton use it to create a palpable tension and urban mood (and a pretty picture to boot).

The story, adapted by Phillip Yordan from his short story “The Hoodlum,” is pretty standard noir stuff. Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is “a righteous man” who wants nothing more than to slap the bracelets on Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) – that’s how everyone refers to him, “Mr. Brown” – a smooth-talking, ruthless gangster. Our introduction to Brown is a model of narrative efficiency, one of those wonderful piece of writing where a screenwriter simultaneously gets the story going and tells us everything we need to know about a character; Mr. Brown gives the third degree to Benny, a boxer he controls, and explains to him what makes him particularly good at his job. “What makes the difference?” he asks. “Hate.” He smiles at the palooka, a gleam in his eye; moments later, he slugs him. “You shoulda hit me back,” he explains. “You haven’t got the hate. Tear up Benny’s contract, he’s no good to me anymore.”

As with so many films noir, the conflict of these two bull-headed men takes a physical and psychological toll on the women in their lives. For Brown, it’s his moll Susan (Jean Wallace), whom we first meet in the act of attempting to escape from his clutches; not long after, she attempts suicide, in pursuit of the same goal. For Lt. Diamond, it’s the burlesque girl Rita, who is introduced in what seems a clever bit of narrative hoodwinking – it seems as though the good cop is busting her for doing more than dancing (“Either book me or let go of my arm!”) before she calls him by his first name and kisses him – but is also very easy to read as a kinky bit of role-playing. Either way, Diamond is clearly not as squeaky-clean as he first seems, and Rita’s got his number; “Detectives, hoodlums,” she shrugs in the next scene, “a girl doesn’t care how a man makes his living. Just how he makes love.” (She leaves that scene by announcing, “Give me my shoes, I’m going home, put them on for me,” which he does, happily, as the soundtrack fills with saxophone trills. The filmmakers cannot show us everything they want to!)

It’s worth noting that Rita is brunette, while Susan is blonde – and Diamond clearly sees the latter as a fallen angel whom he must save. (Mr. Brown, incidentally, tells her he prefers her to wear white.) He tries to appeal to her morality, to get her to drop the dime on Mr. Brown, who doesn’t take kindly to the interference – so Brown sends his hoods (including an impossibly young and handsome Lee van Cleef) to kidnap and torture his nemesis.

Conte’s work is difficult to overpraise – it’s a truly chilling performance, seething with calm menace as he asks the cop, gently, “What are you lookin’ for? Maybe I can help you.” Even when he loses his temper, he doesn’t raise his voice; his delivery is cold and rapid-fire, and by draining the easy indicators of emotion, he raises the narrative stakes to high heavens. There doesn’t seem to be anything he’s incapable of, which is pretty electrifying in a crime picture.

That scene also gives us the first unexpected use of a seemingly innocuous prop. Mr. Brown’s right-hand man – and the man who was passed over for his top spot – is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), who uses a hearing aid. It’s appropriate to the era, with an amplification device running to an earpiece, so Mr. Brown reappropriates it as a torture device, attempting to deafen the cop. The scene is clever, but just a warm-up for the device’s later use, a moment so jaw-dropping I wouldn’t dream of giving it away.

And yet that touch is also a simple one, a bit of low-budget inventiveness on par with Lewis’s celebrated solution for staging a bank robbery without a location or extras in Gun Crazy (he keeps the camera in the car, as the moll waits tensely for their getaway). Moments like those are what made Lewis such a special filmmaker – one who understood that the one thing you didn’t need a blank check or studio backing to procure was, simply, a great idea.

“The Big Combo” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime Video, and Kanopy.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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