27 April 2010

The Big Combo

One of the greatest of all the Film Noirs! If you can imagine Zola seventy-five years after L’Assommoir or Nana writing a detective picture peopled with his trademark gutter obsessives, then you have an idea of the certifiable flavor of The Big Combo.

The plot is driven by a twisted love triangle involving Mr. Brown, a merciless crime boss, Leonard Diamond, a double-minded detective, and their mutual object of desire, Susan Lowell, a blonde society princess brought low by her taste for the pleasures of the flesh.

As Diamond compulsively tracks Brown to get to Lowell (he’s been stalking her for six months, and when the police department refuses to pony up for his surveillance, he pays his expenses out of his own pocket to follow her to Las Vegas and Cuba), we meet an assortment of secondary neurotics, including showgirl Rita, a sort of anti-Susan Lowell, of whom a weeping Diamond says upon her death I treated her like a pair of gloves. When I was cold, I called her up. And there’s also Mingo and Fante, Brown’s peculiarly inseparable henchmen.

There’s something in The Big Combo for everyone: fetishists will admire the high-heeled scene where Rita orders Diamond to put her shoes on her feet. Fanciers of homo-erotics will be tickled pink as they see Mingo and Fante sharing salami(!) in their cozy little room, and then reaching for Kleenex at Mingo’s utter lover’s despair over Fante’s death. Sadists will marvel at the ingenuity Brown displays in torturing Diamond with a hearing aid and a bottle of hair tonic. Dime-store philosophers will busily scribble notes as Brown, a demoniac’s Dale Carnegie, lectures on how to conquer the world through inspirational hate. And sex addicts will quiver and moan knowingly as they watch Susan Lowell, in the instant after telling Brown I hate and despise you, become helplessly enraptured as Brown goes down, down, down on her. If anybody ever deserved an Academy Award for five seconds of acting, it’s Jean Wallace as Susan Lowell, becoming intoxicated at Mr. Brown’s dirty deeds. The dilemma of Romans 7:23 (But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members) has never been so ecstatically and graphically presented as on Ms. Wallace’s fevered face.

Richard Conte is outstanding as the arrogant and ruthless Mr. Brown. Delivering classic tough guys lines (Joe, tell the man I'm gonna break him so fast, he won't have time to change his pants. Tell him the next time I see him, he'll be in the lobby of the hotel, crying like a baby and asking for a ten dollar loan. Tell him that. And tell him I don't break my word) at half-a-click faster than the rest of the cast, he appears to be operating on a higher level than everybody else, and creates his character's aura of invincibility.

Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman are also quite good as Fante and Mingo, Brown's queerly bonded muscle.

The Big Combo is literally one of the darkest of the Noirs. It seems as if everyone in this movie is trying to save on their light bill. Even the hospital where a suicidal Susan Lowell is taken is a gloomy, barely lit crypt of shadows.

Unfortunately, The Big Combo does not have an ending worthy of its first sixty minutes or so. The whole thing begins to unravel as the dead bodies pile up in a clumsy attempt to tie up the script's loose ends, and bring about a weird Casablanca-alternate-ending for Diamond and Lowell. A small price to pay, however, for the perverse pleasures that precede it.

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