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USA 1955
Directed by
Joseph H.Lewis
87 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Big Combo

Although Cornel Wilde is far from being a compelling screen presence and the film feels overlong The Big Combo is an above average B grade gangster movie with its roots in 1940s film noir.

Wilde plays Lt. Leonard Diamond, a cop obsessed with bringing down ruthless but untouchable crime boss, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). When he can't nail him he goes after Mr Brown's girl, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace, who looks and sounds remarkably like Mariel Hemingway or maybe even Grace Kelly), a society dame with a taste for danger. As the two lock horns the bodies mount up.

The script by Phillip Yordan with its numerous characters, twists and turns and smart dialogue is unusually substantial for this kind of fare and gets a stylish transposition to the screen by studio director Joseph H. Lewis helped out by excellent black and white photography by John Alton and a jazzy score by David Raksin.

On the downside it must be said that Lewis doesn’t get (or want) much interplay between the characters. Diamond’s relationship with Susan is particularly unconvincing and that with his burlesque performing girlfriend of sorts, Rita (Helen Stanton) isn’t a whole lot better. Perhaps this tendency is most obvious in scenes in which Lewis has Conte facing the camera and speaking to characters over his shoulder. The exception is the homosexual (very unusual for the time) relationship between Mr Brown’s two henchmen (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman). Also rather unconvincing is a sub-plot involving Mr Brown’s ex-wife (Helen Walker) which one suspects wasincluded simply to extend the run time. Nevertheless there is much to enjoy here and the film warrants its cult status.

FYI:  The bulk of Lewis work was with Westerns but his 1949 film Gun Crazy is an impressive precursor to Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

There's a fair chance that Quentin Tarantino called his Reservoir Dogs rogues' gallery by colours in homage to this film (he gave himself the name Mr Brown).




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