THE BIG COMBO combines a colorful cast with a stylish director and quirksome script, blesses their work with compositions from a superb cameraman and a celebrated composer. Though not a big hit in 1955, ranking 141st in a crowded field, it still covered the slim outlay of $500,000 with a gross of $1,900,000, and is a highly regarded addition to the film noir canon.
Police ‘Lt. Leonard Diamond’ (Cornel Wilde) is hell-bent on nailing ‘Mr. Brown’ (Richard Conte), a powerful, elusive gangster, even if getting him comes at great professional and personal cost. Figuring in Diamond’s obsessive pursuit of the arrogant and unflappable hood are ‘Susan Lowell’ (Jean Wallace), Brown’s erotically dominated mistress, and Diamond’s stripper girlfriend ‘Rita’ (Helene Stanton). Threats and worse come from Brown’s brutal underlings ‘McClure’ (Brian Donlevy), ‘Fante’ (Lee Van Cleef) and ‘Mingo’ (Earl Holliman).
Philip Yordan’s script makes these characters (and numerous smaller ones) compelling and unsettling. Joseph H. Lewis’ direction doesn’t spare rough stuff, and somehow got some unusually suggestive sexual material past the censors: Conte’s brazen seduction scene with Wallace and the now-obvious soul-mating of the creeps done by Van Cleef and Holliman.
Veterans Wilde, Conte and Donlevy have the milieus manner dialed in, Wallace (Wilde’s wife) never looked sexier or acted better than here and seductive singer Helene Stanley turns on the heat in her first acting role. Trenchant support comes from Robert Middleton, John Hoyt (merrily obtuse), Ted de Corsia (sympathetic for a change) and Jay Adler. Only Helen Walker comes off wrong, overly histrionic; this was the final role for the ill-fated actress.
David Raksin provides a jazzy score, and adding vital texture is the splendid, mood-mastering cinematography, the work of John Alton. 88 minutes.