The Big Combo (1955)
For a film that doesnít even reach the 90 minute mark, The Big Combo is a tight, lean noir that masterfully balances the various elements of the film into a concise piece of entertainment. From the fleshed- out characters to the haunting visual set pieces, The Big Combo mixes the best of noir into a fantastic little package.
The skinny is this, Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is tirelessly pursuing crime boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), but when he gets pressure from up top that his operation is taking too long and costing too much, Diamond is forced to accelerate his investigation and begins to squeeze Mr. Brown. But Brown fights back and itís not long before the two are caught up in a series of risky gambles where the stakes are life.
What makes The Big Combo work so well is the way the characters defy easy expectations and categorization. First impressions are rarely lasting ones and as the film progresses, more sides to the characters are revealed. Leonard Diamond isnít simply the saintly boy scout in love with the wrong girl, heís got his own vices and faults that give his character his own distinctive shadow
Likewise, Mr. Brown starts off as a malicious character who doesnít mind getting a little rough, but as the film progresses, he backs off from violence and resorts to other means to achieve his goals. And yet, he eventually must descend down the slippery slope of violence, and itís interesting to watch the gradual decline unfold and how he doesnít always conform the notions of evil that are ascribed to him.
The film crafts some astounding visual shots. Cinematographer John Alton uses lighting and shadows for more than just the atmosphere, but as a way to draw emphasis and obscure information, a way to give the audience just a glimpse, a suggestion of what might be there, or give them a simple visual cue to convey everything they need to know about a moment. His visual economy allows the visuals to be a heavy part of the dramatic effect of a scene.
Beyond the visuals, the film builds a couple of fantastic moments around sound. One moment of anguish is built around the idea of so much sound it threatens to blow your earlobes while the film later crafts a haunting and disorienting moment around a sequence of utter silence.
And while itís easy to get caught in how good the film can be moment to moment and character to character, Phillip Yordanís script elegantly balances all these elements, weaving a tapestry of memorable moments and characters built around an ever developing series of questions, mysteries and suspense pieces.
While it might be hard to argue that any of these elements havenít been done elsewhere, itís the combination that makes it so gripping and memorable. Itís got enough flavor of just about every bit of noir one could want and it comes together in a tight package. And that alone makes it a must see noir.