Blogathons, Classic Film Discoveries, Noir Or Never, Uncategorized

A Dark Web: Cornel Wilde as Lt. Leonard Diamond

Last year November I took part in Noirvember’s delightfully dark shadows and winding back alley plots. And I discovered a myriad of wonderful films that I had never heard of or had the opportunity to see, and one of these was The Big Combo (1955).

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I knew absolutely nothing about the film except that Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte were in it. I was no stranger to Conte’s work, having seen House of Strangers and The Blue Gardenia. I had only seen Wilde’s performance in Leave Her To Heaven, but I was impressed by both of these actor’s compelling acting talents. As well as the length of Wilde’s eyelashes.

As the French film critics described, film noir was a style of film, an uncoordinated movement that explored the relentlessness of life, the possible misery and agony it could bring in many forms. A dystopian view of war time America and Europe, as well as the lingering melancholia in the post war period. This was a world in which the milk of human kindness had spilled until not a drop remained, no one was truly innocent, anyone was capable of murder, brutality, sexual deviance and betrayal.

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Taken from Film Noir, pg. 196

The Big Combo is a film which shows many of these things both openly and suggests them most deftly. Conte plays a corrupt and extremely powerful mobster, Mr Brown, with whom Diamond (Wilde) has become obsessed with destroying by any means possible. While Diamond first appears to be a white knight, a man who has only the most unquestionable morals and motives, as the movie wears on, the viewer becomes more and more doubtful of this.

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Mr Brown is the clear villain. He has murdered, sabotaged, tortured and betrayed his way to the top. He runs an organisation that is seemingly without cracks or weaknesses, as Diamond has discovered over the protracted period he has searched for them. Everyone who may potentially betray Brown’s secrets are disposed of one by one. And those who are not murdered, are made so afraid that they dare not speak against Brown. This is most evident when Diamond begins to learn more information about Brown’s pre power days and discovers he has a wife who he has hidden away. She is so clearly afraid of Brown, that she denies she is his wife, therefore maintaining the lie that Brown has manufactured: that she died many years before.

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Brown tortures diamond with a hearing aid whilst his henchman look on in depraved delight, taken from Film Noir pg. 207

But Brown and Diamond’s weakness both originate from one source: Susan Lowell, played by the beautiful Jean Wallace. She is a socialite who had much potential, who could have pursued one of her many talents, but who has come under Brown’s control so utterly, that his two henchman Fante and Mingo, played by Lee Van Kleef and Earl Holliman, physically restrain her on several occasions when she tries to make her escapes. Even when she tries to make a final escape by swallowing a fatal amount of pills.

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Susan’s relationships with both men is toxic. She stays with Brown not only because she is entrapped by his power, but because he fulfils her sexually. This is illustrated when he tries to understand why she keeps running away, as he cannot possibly imagine that his obsessive control may be driving her to madness; by kissing her way down her body and, it is suggested, performing oral sex on her. Diamond may seem as if he wants to save her, but like Brown, he wants to own her, her beauty, her very soul. According to Duncan and Müller in their fabulous book Film Noir,

“…police detective Leonard Diamond…permits a sexual obsession with the abused and masochistic socialite Susan…to alter his formerly legal modus operandi. He becomes intent on destroying the illegal operations of her mobster lover and his rival, Mr Brown…by any means necessary” (pg 197).

The Big Combo brilliantly suggests many sexual relationships that seem deviant, or would have been considered deviant at the time of the films release. Ducan and Müller also point out that

“Diamond…sleeps with a burlesque dancer; when she is murdered…[he] laments tat he put her on and off like a glove” and that Mr Brown’s hitmen Fante and Mingo are obviously gay lovers, although this cannot be stated” (pg 206).

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This homosexual subtext is most obviously suggested when, even though Fante and Mingo are in separate beds, Fante has his shirt off in bed, and the sheet is pulled up over a probably naked lower half when Mr Brown calls. This shows that he and Mingo have just had sex. There relationship is also toxic, as Fante dominates Mingo utterly, and often verbally abuses him.

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Look at those shoulders. Dayum.

When the film ends, and Mr Brown has been turned on by his own people because he has shown no loyalty to them by one, explosive act, as well as his trail of deceit; Diamond and Susan wait for the police. And while justice has been served, it almost leaves a bitter taste in ones mouth. Brown is dead, but corruption and crime is not. Diamond is no longer the unselfishly motivated seeker of justice he was at the film’s start. He and Susan seem as if they will be together, but will their relationship be any better than it was before? After all, they are of different social classes, and her masochism seems to remain. Will Diamond even want her as obsessively as he did before now that she no longer “belongs” to another man. All these questions are left unanswered, as they wait in the darkness and mist, an atmosphere that is so deftly created by cinematographer John Alton, (Duncan & Müller, pg 197), that symbolises the uncertainty of the future.

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Diamond and Susan stand apart, seemingly not a united front. Taken from Film Noir pg. 194-5. 

Bibliography 

Eds. Duncan, P & Müller, J. Film Noir. (2018). Taschen. pg 194-207.

 

This is my contribution for Dubsism’s The Cops Blogathon. Please visit his blog for more information and to read everyone’s entries.

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16 thoughts on “A Dark Web: Cornel Wilde as Lt. Leonard Diamond”

  1. One of my all-time favorites. Conte, Wallace and Wilde are at the top of their game here, and so many scenes/shots are so perfectly composed and framed that they’re like stunning black and white works of art. Thanks for the great write-up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well-written and thoughtful summary. This is one of my favorite films-noir, but even though I’ve seen it several times, it never occurred to me that Lt. Diamond wanted to possess Susan just as much as Mr. Brown did. (But then again, I completely missed the gay subtext of Mingo and Fante until someone pointed it out to me.) Good review!

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  3. An excellent look at one of the premiere films-noir. I first saw this movie when I was a teenager and most of it went over my head. However, the intensity of the characters and the emotions made an indelible impression, and I return to it often.

    Jay Adler makes his character, Det. Hill, Diamond’s grounded partner, one of my favourite movie cops. The performance is so understated and his common sense would be so invaluable to a partner who wasn’t so obsessed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed my thoughts on the film. Absolutely. If I was Jay I would’ve gone bananas! Thanks so much for your lovely comment as usual 🌸

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  4. I’m a fan too and wrote about the movie some time ago. Joseph H. Lewis was certainly an interesting director. In Gun Crazy he didn’t separate between sex and violence, in Combo it’s sex and power that seem to be interchangeable. Really, the whole movie is about sex, sex and more sex. I was very surprised the PCA let it all slide though in 1955 Breen was gone. Thankfully.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely agree, Margot! Yes by that time the production code was becoming a shell. Thanks so much for your lovely comment! By the way, I’d love for you to join either of my upcoming Blogathons if you’d like to 🖤

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      1. I think I joined your Daphne du Maurier blogathon. Also, I am very late with my Joan Crawford entry which I will hopefully post in the next two days. It got so very busy that I just couldn’t finish it in time.

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  5. Love your write-up on one of my favourite films in the pantheon of film noir. Brilliant cinematography that I feel is iconic and whilst Cornel Wilde is not a favourite of mine, I think he does a superb job in this film.

    You really do justice to the legacy of the film with fantastic insights and particularly, I think, it’s importance in ignoring the Code and breaking ground. But I also love the way you point out the themes of the film – something that always draws me into great films. You have a great control of language in defining the quality of the noirish presence in the film. And as for the sexual expression – there’s such an eroticism in the moment of suggested oral sex that is more powerful and exciting than most modern films that depict it more explicitly.

    I also agree 100% that Diamond wants Susan in the same way that Brown does – even if he’s the ‘good guy’. But of course who wouldn’t? 🙂 Again, the heightened sexuality in the film is obvious and Susan is a far more complex character than what she may on the surface appear to be.

    Always a pleasure reading your work! Hope you’re writing for the Noirama Blogathon that Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is running – your film noir compass is spot on!

    Regards, Paul

    Liked by 1 person

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