Obsessed cop hunts down a psychotic crime boss
You think this is a mink… you think these are the skins of little wild animals sewn together for your pleasure – you’re mistaken… these are the skins of human beings… people, who have been beaten, sold, robbed, doped, murdered by Mr Brown.
I live in a maze… a strange blind backward maze, and all the little twisting paths lead back to Mr Brown.
The Big Combo is the greatest film noir of the 50’s: put simply a masterpiece of the genre. Directed by maverick “B” director Joseph H. Lewis and filmed by master cinematographer John Alton from a tight screenplay from Philip Yordan, this movie is totally engrossing and visually stunning. Each scene is a study in composition and expressionist lighting. The cast is exceptionally strong and each player delivers a nuanced performance. The hip 50s score of David Raksin introduced over the opening credits is both surreal and portentous.
There are no femme-fatales but three women who are pivotal to a tragic story of sex, obsession, psychosis, and perverted love.
While not wishing to downplay Jean Wallace, who is arresting as the female lead, for me Rita, the stripper and erstwhile girlfriend of the obsessed cop, holds the central interest. Played beautifully by Helene Stanton, a B actress in her first role (followed by some other minor roles until she disappeared into obscurity in 1957), Rita is the most fascinating and real person in the story: any more about the role will risk spoilers.
Her scenes linger long in the memory, and when the film is over you realise how much integrity she has. That Helene Stanton could bring such depth to a supporting role is testimony to her strength as an actress and director Lewis’ ability to foster strong performances from raw talent.
If you only ever see one film noir, this is it.
11 thoughts on “The Big Combo (1955): Quintessential Noir”
Great review of a great film — one of my favorites. We really need a first-rate DVD edition of this!
Thanks Lloyd! And yes, imagine how great a new digital transfer would look.
Just arrived here from the link provided under Allan Fish’s review at Wonders in the Dark, and I must say a wildly enthusisastic assessment of the film. I would have never thought to call this the greatest noir (I saw it years ago) but I think I must see it again. I do remember the characters and the moody music and photography vividly.
Thanks Peter for your visit. Re-visiting my review makes me want to see it again!
Surely it is Alton’s best camera work among his other notable noir achievements. I’ve just finished reviewing “Slightly Scarlet” which was released the following year and also put Alton’s talent to work but this time in SuperScope and Technicolor. Allan Dwan’s film is not near as good as Lewis’ “The Big Combo” but Alton still captures the noir tones in color, and Arlene Dahl’s nymphomaniac makes for some heavily suggestive stuff for 1956.
Thanks for focusing on Rita, my fave character in the film. “Leonard! Take me to the party.”
awesome film noir. hits on all cylinders. tense tight performances across the board. glad to discover this kind of quality I did not know of before. sometimes life just gets good. lucky us for the http://www.digicomtv.com top quality release.
Adore the character of Rita and camera work.