The Big Combo
I look forward every October to attending the D.C. Film Noir Festival at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring. The Festival typically offers a "Big Combo" admissions ticket under which several films can be seen for a reduction in price. Unfortunately, this year's October noir festival has been cancelled due to the pandemic. I have been watching film noir at home instead, including this "Big Combo" which was new to me.
Joseph Lewis directed this 1955 "Big Combo" and Philip Yordan wrote the screenplay. Much of the attraction of this film lies in the cinematography of John Alton and in the music by David Raksin. The cinematography is classic noir with its shadows, scenes of large city streets, and tight claustrophobic or forbidding interiors. An iconic shot concludes the movie with two romantically linked characters walking away in a foggy scene at the airport. Raksin's music is swanky and jazzy and captures both the appeal and the danger of the large unnamed American city in which the story takes place. An interlude in the film offers a brash, virtuoso rendition of a Chopin Scherzo.
The plot of the film is complex and somewhat disjointed. Cornel Wilde plays Lieutenant Leonard Diamond, a dedicated policeman who is attempting to find evidence against a criminal boss known as Mr. Brown and menacingly performed by Richard Conte. Diamond's superiors try to discourage his efforts, due in part to the large expenditures Diamond has incurred without results and due in part to Brown's powerful connections in the city government. Diamond has been shadowing Brown's long-term lady friend, Susan Lowell in part from devotion to duty and in part because he is in love with her. The conflicted emotions in several of the characters. Diamond, Brown, and others, is an appealing aspect of this film. Brown also has a lady friend whom, by his own admission, he uses, a burlesque dancer named Rita. The film also includes several characters with smaller well-developed roles, including two hit men, Fante and Mingo, and Brown's assistant, Joe McClure.
The movie follows Diamond's unremitting efforts to pin a serious crime on Brown, who is shown as a vicious, sadistic kingpin who can also be charming and who appears to have some genuine feeling for Susan. As the story develops, Diamond follows leads suggesting that Brown has killed his wife at sea some years earlier. This lead is followed-through with scenes with several people who had earlier been Brown's associates. As the story gets closer to Brown, Diamond is tortured and several people are brutally murdered, Susan eventually works up the courage to leave Brown, with a possible romance with Diamond left hanging in the famous concluding scene.
Richard Conte offers a brutal, convincing and yet partly sympathetic portrayal of Brown. The film includes many chilling scenes of Brown, including his torture of Diamond, and his killing of his subordinates. Lieutenant Diamond is portrayed both as a dedicated police officer and as personally involved in the case with his actions motivated in part by his feelings for Susan. The film includes several sexual innuendos and references highly daring for a film from the mid-1950s.
The film has a noir feel in its focus on the inner lives of its protagonists and in its music and cinematography. The movie also has elements of a detective story. Little is to be gained by quibbling over genre. I enjoyed the portrayal of the harshness of the city and the characters with the hint of possibility of a better, less selfish and violent way of life. In these difficult days, I also appreciated the positive, gritty portrayal of Lieutenant Diamond and of his colleagues on the police force.
Although I will miss the Noir Festival this year and the possibility of purchasing a big combo to see many film noirs, I was glad to have the opportunity to see this "Big Combo". The movie was enjoyable and enhanced my appreciation of film noir. There is substantial critical literature and commentary on this film. I supplemented my viewing by reading some of the various commentaries and interpretations available online.