Monday, February 17, 2014

The Big Combo

The Big Combo 1955 U.S. Allied Artists (84 minutes) directed by Joseph H. Lewis, written by Philip Yordan, cinematography by John Alton, lighting by Harry Sundby, music by David Raksin, Robert S. Eisen, editor.

This is a cockamamie cock-and-bull crime story with lots of improbable moving parts, shot in infinite shades of gray in that film noir homeland that was mid-century midtown Manhattan.

The opening credits roll against Manhattan’s neon and motor vehicle headlights seen from the window of a low-flying airplane after dark. At a big boxing event, a young woman flees the arena, chased by two men through the ill-lit, empty and cavernous innards of the structure. At a police station, a dour cop is dead-set on bringing an all but untouchable mob boss to justice.
The cock is the preening mob boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). Brown, a former prison guard, has ‘worked his way up’ through the organization known to police as ‘The Combination’—the ‘Big Combo’ of the title. Brown heads Bolemac Corporation, the mob’s legitimate front, which operates out of its Bolemac Hotel. He took over Bolemac from a certain Grazzi, who ‘returned to Sicily.’

The bull is Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) of the New York Police Department’s 93rd Precinct. Diamond is an uncompromising gumshoe bent on bringing down the ruthless and slippery Brown. His ‘sworn duty is to push too hard.’
The cock’s current hen is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace). Lowell is an upper crust, classically-trained musician in her twenties whom the story line characterizes as drawn to Brown’s animal magnetism while slumming in the clubs in defiance of her parents—Grace Kelly’s bad sister. In an early scene in a restaurant Lowell spots a middle-aged family acquaintance who asks if she still plays the piano.

‘The only thing I play now, Mr. Audubon, is stud poker,’ Lowell replies, shortly before she passes out from too many pills. Mae West would have banked that line.
Brown’s gang includes Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), his former superior in the Grazzi organization, a middle-aged man with a hearing aid. Brown also has a pair of gunzels, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman).

‘First is first, and second is nobody,’ Brown lectures his henchmen, belittling McClure, who once owned the hotel, shouting in McClure’s hearing aid for emphasis. (Brown subsequently uses the device to torture Diamond; and then later he turns it off to soften a blow out of a kind of ‘consideration.’)
Brown speaks self-consciously, as though looking in a mirror, often with his back to his interlocutor. He likes the serrated cut of his wit and the sound of his own voice. At outset he looks into the camera, for instance, speaking what he wishes to convey to Diamond as though through a third person.

At the 93rd Precinct police station, Captain Peterson (Robert Middleton) takes Diamond to task over the $18,600 Diamond has spent in six months of investigating Brown—some of which out of his own pocket (in 2014 dollars this would be roughly $161,750). This investigation has included trips to Las Vegas and Cuba at Diamond’s own expense—and on the $96.50 a week that Brown keeps taunting Diamond he makes as a policeman.

Diamond insists to his captain that he is only a treasurer away from nailing Brown. Peterson suspects that Diamond has a thing for the moll and, reminding Diamond that there are ‘17,000 laws on the books to be enforced,’ tells his lieutenant to get his priorities straight.

And the bull does have a thing for the ‘wayward girl.’ Across a table from Lowell in a nightclub, Diamond tries to convince her help him get evidence on Brown to convict him:

‘Do you think this is mink, Miss Lowell? Do you think these are the skins of little animals sewn together for your pleasure? You're mistaken. These are skins of human beings, Miss Lowell, the skins of people who have been beaten, sold, robbed, doped and murdered by Mr. Brown,’ Diamond tells her.

At the same time, Diamond has an on-off relationship with Rita (Helene Stanton), a burlesque queen. A sign near the strip club where Diamond goes to see Rita reads in large letters: ‘Easy terms.’
“Hoodlum, detective: a woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, just how he makes love,” Rita says.

The plot convolutes as Diamond inevitably winds closer his quarry. The memorable denouement takes place in the Casablancan fog of a small airfield hangar at night, and likewise portends to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The unsung stars of this picture are John Alton’s cinematography and Harry Sundby’s lighting. The film’s gray tones are remarkable. If possible, one should see this picture projected on a big screen in a movie theater.

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