This violent, dark film tells of tormented Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde), who is on a personal crusade to bring down sadistic gangster Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). He's also dangerously obsessed with Brown's girlfriend (Jean Wallace), his captive lover.
When Brown finds out that Diamond is on the case and means to put him behind bars, he boasts:
Mr. Brown taunts Diamond every step of the way and makes Diamond more obsessed. Brown says:
Brown's right-hand man, the over the hill and hard of hearing Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), plots with gangsters (and possibly lovers) Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) to overthrow Mr. Brown, but he ends up getting killed himself. McClure's hearing aid, in an earlier scene, is used to torture detective Diamond with amplified sound (so as not to leave marks) in a display of violence rare for its time.
Meanwhile, Diamond finds a witness that could finally nail the elusive gangster, Mr. Brown's wife--a woman who was thought to have died years ago. The film ends dramatically in a classic foggy airplane hangar shootout.
Actors Wallace and Wilde were married when the film was shot. In fact, they were married from 1951 until their divorce in 1981.
This film noir is considered by many film critics as one of the best work of legendary cinematographer John Alton.
Even though most people associate brass music (trumpets, saxophones, etc.) with film noir, most employed orchestral (strings) scores. However, The Big Combo is one of few film noirs to have a brass score.
The staff at Variety magazine liked the film's direction, music and photography, despite "a rambling, not-too-credible plot." They wrote, "Performances are in keeping with the bare-knuckle direction by Joseph Lewis and, on that score, are good. Low-key photography by John Alton and a noisy, jazzy score by David Raksin [with solo piano by Jacob Gimpel] are in keeping with the film's tough mood.
Film critic Ed Gonzalez lauded the film in his review, writing, "Shadows and lies are the stars of The Big Combo, a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented texture of a spider's web...John Alton's lush camera work is so dominant here you wouldn't know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesn't have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the director's Gun Crazy, but that's no loss given this film's richer returns. The set-pieces are fierce, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallace's performance—a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil—is one of noir's great unheralded triumphs.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 91% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on eleven reviews.
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