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Big Combo, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Cops, hoods, and the line between."
4 stars

There's something to be said for a movie that gets right down to it the way "The Big Combo" does, laying out what it's about quickly and then just going right after it in fairly direct fashion. That's probably the best way to go about presenting what actually winds up being a fairly convoluted plot - just plow through it, and let a fairly game cast do their things.

The film focuses on a hard-driving cop, Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde), who had been spending half his department's resources on trying to build a case against Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), who had risen to control of the local syndicates through a combination of ruthlessness and his predecessor going on the run. Brown's girlfriend Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) seems like the best target, but she is willing to attempt suicide rather than flee. Word comes down to abandon the investigation, but Diamond can't do it, leading Brown to start striking at him personally.

For as much as the crime pictures called "film noir" are often renowned for their morally compromised heroes, there's not necessarily a reciprocal complexity to the villains, and Mr. Brown is one of the more unrepentantly monstrous gangsters an overzealous cop has ever found himself facing. It's clear from the start as he lectures a boxer about the need to utterly destroy one's opponent without any hint of sadness, and there's no sign of irony or regret anywhere else in the film as he attacks enemies and treats Susan like a possession whose ability to think for herself is nothing more than a nuisance. Richard Conte dives into it with relish, making Brown a memorable villain despite being predictable in his evil - he's almost always going to do the worst thing possible - by being neither a cackling nor a joyless psychopath. He's a shark, but a clever one.

Cornel Wilde is not nearly as memorable as his would-be nemesis - he delivers the clipped voice and righteousness of thousands of crusading cops on film - but the way he and the other characters are written makes The Big Combo a little more interesting than it needs to be. It's easy to imagine there being more of a backstory between him and burlesque dancer Rita (Helene Stanton) than is explicitly laid out, and the tease of him having a foot in her disreputable world makes him a bit more intriguing. And while both the dark-haired pinup and angelic blonde wind up serving something to their expected roles in the story, Helene Stanton and Jean Wallace do get to define them as interesting people in their own right beyond how they relate to men, with the script by Philip Yordan even able to take a moment to acknowledge what a raw deal women get in this situation.

(It's also got one of my favorite classic-movie things, where the henchmen played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman are almost certainly a couple but it's designed to go unnoticed because they're not played effeminately at all.)

Yordan's script starts out pretty straightforward but builds a backstory that winds up increasing in importance as the film goes on, but he and director Joseph H. Lewis do a good job of opening the story up without making it seem like a real change in direction. Lewis also gives it a fair amount of style, doing a nice job of finding the line between the respectable world and the underworld. It's not always subtle - the finale literally involves a previously frightened person shining a light on villainy - but that's part of the fun.

That's on the nose, and there are a few other moments where it's much closer to class-B pulp than level-A noir, but that's okay. It's good pulp, and smart enough about the genre's weaknesses to make what might otherwise be issues work in its favor.

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originally posted: 12/01/15 13:44:50
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  DVD: 26-Oct-2004

  N/A (PG)


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