Pulp Corner: The Big Combo
I’ve been dying to watch some kind of prototypical by the numbers detective noir. The other night I was lucky enough to stumble on ‘The Big Combo’. With a title so ultra noir, I knew I was in for something good.
The movie carries just about every noir staple you could possibly ask for. The flawed detective that won’t give up the case, a Mafioso like gangster calling the shots who is pure evil and dressed magnificently, crackling dialogue and almost perpetual darkness and fog…God is there fog.
‘The Big Combo’ is the story of Lt. Leonard Diamond, a police officer who is hell bent on bringing down the gangster, Mr. Brown. Brown is one of those finely tuned gangsters where their tracks are always covered, making it impossible to ever pin something on them and make it stick. He’s a classic slimy villain, the kind you hate but love seeing him in every scene he’s in. He down talks to just about everyone he interacts with. The majority of the time him and Lt. Diamond are in a room together, Mr. Brown has his back to him. Literally, he’s sitting in a chair that’s turned around dictating things and insulting him. It’s insanely condescending. Brown is portrayed by Richard Conte who does an excellent job with this character.
To complicate the situation, Diamond is in love with Brown’s girl, Susan Lowell. On a night out on the town Lowell collapses. Seeming like an accidental overdose at first, we find out it was a suicide attempt. Diamond takes the opportunity of her being alone at the hospital to find some dirt on Mr. Brown. All he gets is a name, “Alicia”.
Afterward, two of Brown’s men (one being the great evil bad ass and spaghetti western alumni, Lee Van Cleef) kidnap Diamond and torture him in a scene that is straight out of ‘Reservoir Dogs’. It’s not nearly as brutal by today’s standards but I’m surprised to see it in a movie from 1955. The whole scene has such an intense and ominous feel to it, dread continuously hangs over it.
Diamond is a broken man and now even more hell bent on unraveling the mystery of “Alicia” and how it relates to Mr. Brown. Things get deeper and deadlier with unexpected twists and unexpected circumstances.
This movie bears a strong resemblance to another noir from 2 years earlier called ‘The Big Heat’. Glen Ford plays a police detective obsessed with bringing down a refined but deadly gangster. However, in that movie it felt difficult to get behind Glen Ford’s character besides the good vs. evil ideals and some personal vendettas. He’s just too squeaky clean. Lt Diamond is a flawed man, which immediately makes him more interesting to me. He’s a serious drinker, he’s dating a burlesque dancer and he’s way too invested in the case of Mr. Brown. We are always left wondering if his motivations are driving him to do his job because it’s what’s right or because he’s in love with Mr. Brown’s girl.
‘The Big Heat’ (whether intended to or not) plays like a ‘B’ movie dressed up as a big budget ‘A’ movie whereas ‘The Big Combo’ never comes off as anything but a ‘B’ movie. It almost revels in it. Every single scene is bathed in darkness or fog. It’s amazing and gives it the sinister edge it deserves. It’s over the top even as far as noir is concerned and that’s what makes it great. Its self-aware movie making, it’s no surprise that it came out in 1955 at the tail end of the genre’s heyday. It takes everything that makes noir what it is and it over emphasizes it and pushes it to the extreme. Yet it still works somehow and that’s what makes it a must see. There are definitely better noirs and noirs that are better movies than this but if you’re looking for a total summation of this genre, it’s ‘The Big Combo’.
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