Saturday, November 15, 2008

THE BIG COMBO (1955)

“Hoodlums, detectives… A woman doesn’t care how a man makes his living, only how he makes love.”

THE CARD:

Young Angel Eyes, a mobster pissing contest, Conte de Sade, an Abu Graib hearing aid, a movie title that’s not El T.’s lunch, Detective Mel Blanc, Eeeeeaaarrrllll Hooolliiiimaaaan, and goofy dames in a tizzy mucked up by a bruno who likes it rough, see?!

More details here.

THE ANGLE:

A frazzled gal (Jean Wallace) takes the run-out from her mobster boyfriend Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) by popping pills. She’s saved from pulling the Dutch act by Brown’s droppers, Fanti (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holiman), a gruesome twosome who may be gunsels, but who am I to judge? On the other side of the law, Police Lt. Lenny Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is dizzy for Brown’s twist and is aching to have Brown’s elbows checked. But it ain’t gonna be eggs in the coffee, pally, because Brown’s a tough customer with cajones the size of King Kong’s knuckles. Whatever that means. Anyway, Diamond launches a crusade to bring Brown down, obsessed with his sadistic treatment of women and his bloodthirsty ways of doing business, but the detective’s not without issues of his own. He’s overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and alienation like your typical postwar hero ought to be. Brown is such a conniver and a looming presence that he freely slaps around prizefighters twice his size, deftly maneuvers his legitimate and criminal business combination, slaps around his women and does unspeakable damage to them, and keeps his former boss (Brian Donlevy) around to treat like a kickball. Diamond safely but temporarily secures Brown’s girlfriend Susan in the hospital where she mutters the name “Alicia” repeatedly. In this mysterious name he finds a possible flaw in Brown’s armor, and his obsession deepens along with his misguided affections towards Susan. He sets an extensive investigation into motion against him, and Brown’s old boss is fed up with his abuse and finds an ace up his sleeve. But the vile Brown’s on top of all that and hatches a plan to keep his secret, his girl, and his combo and take down the cops, his enemies, and his past all in one fell and blood-drenched swoop.

THE FINISHER:

If film noir was a bar, The Big Combo would be top-shelf liquor, the Bookers of killer thrillers. Over the years, the movie has been reduced by critics as a stylistic exercise with a flimsy plotline, but in truth it exudes seedy greatness at a low-budget cost accented with a multi-layered subtext of dueling masculinities, scarred psyches, buried secrets, sweaty insecurities, and sexual desperation. Physical and emotional darkness envelop the film and its grimness shrouds the characters in a stark world that is inescapable, even at a dance hall or piano concerto. This is mostly due to cinematographer John Alton’s enthralling photography and lighting which brings to life a nightmarish cityscape populated by shadows, silhouettes, and empty souls. This is arguably film noir at its finest, if not most exemplary, pitch. Wilde’s and Conte’s performances have also been underestimated over the years. Wilde is a raving brute at times, a spiritless loser at others, wallowing in his pathological fixation and fueled by incomprehensible isolation. Conte is a pure quick-quipping sadist, an imposing figure drenched in malevolence and violent power, hateful but magnetic. His is the most fully developed of the characters. Wallace is fine as the Grace Kelly-ish fallen woman; she handles the role of a damaged dame with balanced tenderness and lunacy. Van Cleef and Holiman are great as the homicidal goons and their relationship is maybe the most realized in the movie, leaving not-so subtle hints of its orientation to ponder. The Big Combo is a satisfying potboiler with plenty of visual splendor, tough guy talk, and disturbing psychological tension that will make you hit a bottle after viewing. While others may pleasurably guzzle the melodramatic malty hops of lesser noir, I’ll take another swig of this dark cocktail anytime.

1 comment:

Nick Noir said...

This movie is about a mediocre as it gets.

The only style comes from Alton and every actor is phoning it in accept for Van Cleef and Holiman who only seem like they are given something to do because they have dialog.

Lewis did ten times better with Gun Crazy and that was 5 years earlier.

Bland, bland, bland.