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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.