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THE BIG COMBO

(1955)

Starring Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Wallace; dir: Joseph H. Lewis

 

By 1955 film noir was nearing the completion of its ‘cycle’ (generally held to end with 1958’s Touch of Evil - thereafter we’re talking ‘revival’ or neo-noir). So it’s not surprising to find this late entrant is surprisingly modern: crime is now corporatised and suspects wind up dead (by the hands of suspicious associates) after being merely visited by the protagonist cop, a neurotically obsessive loner. In the 1940s a visit from Bogart meant he would rough you up himself.

That’s not to portray The Big Combo as some antediluvian Dirty Harry. With cameraman John Alton’s cinematography mapping its highlights this flick is unmistakably noir. Its plot turn to unearth the meaning behind one whispered name – ‘Alicia’ - is not only explicitly Kane-esque, but in tune with noir ’s preoccupation with memory and buried secrets.

But the more graphic violence for which it is now remembered is undeniably a link to what would soon become staple fare. The torture scene centering on a hearing aid is as brutal - and eccentric - as Roman Polanski’s nose job on Jack Nicholson in Chinatown some twenty years later.

Director Joseph H.Lewis is best known for Gun Crazy, a late-40s precursor to His-and-Hers crime sprees like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands. Away from Alton’s bravura compositions, which kick in right from the opening titles (themselves an adrenalin rush of nighttime cityscapes and melodramatic 50s jazz) the film’s exposition is static, even flat at times. My theory is that cinematographer Alton effectively directed the film’s highlights. For chilling point-of-view can anything top the silent barking of the assassins’ tommy guns as the victim’s hearing aid is ripped away? Alton’s fingerprints are also undeniably all over The Big Combo’s famous final shot where, echoing Casablanca, the two survivors walk together (but not touching) side by side into the all-enveloping fog that is their future.

- Roger Westcombe