' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Big Combo (1955)

Friday, November 08, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Big Combo (1955)

The most befitting emblem of modern America, I’ve often thought, is the mantra of NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, hero of the immortal 2006 comedy “Talladega Nights”, who decreed “If you’re not first, you’re last”, so befitting, in fact, that NBA star Kevin Durant, as I have noted before, un-ironically quoted this line. That’s why I was stopped short when Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), chief heavy of Joseph H. Lewis’s 1955 noir “The Big Combo”, declared “First is first and second is nobody.” This observation, I guess, is indicative not just of modern America but, simply, America itself. The nation’s economy boomed in the mid-50s, though it came on the heels of war rationing and struggles, undoubtedly planting the idea in the back of one’s mind that it could all so easily be taken away. And though noir villains typically come rich and stay rich, “The Big Combo” references Mr. Brown’s past as a prison guard, a menial kind of clockwatching job, the sort that Mr. Brown cockily derides when communicating with a cop, dismissing his paltry salary. Mr. Brown runs some vaguely defined corporation, vaguely defined because it exists only to cover his criminal malfeasance; what he really traffics in is power.

If there is an irony to this notion of the rich & powerful, it’s that “The Big Combo” was a classic B movie, made on the cheap, which sometimes shows, Lewis cleverly masking any budget limitations with variations of shadows and fog. Not that it matters. All he needs to exude this dynamic are the performances, Conte’s jittery, cocky air, talking fast as if to make up for lost time, and Cornel Wilde as Diamond, the Detective forever on his trail, giving a performance that is almost anti-charismatic, letting the weariness follow him around like Pigpen’s cloud of dust, as if playing directly into the notion that crime, in fact, does pay and a cop’s salary doesn’t pay much at all. His dank little office, with his crummy little coffeemaker, may as well be his only place in the world while the whole word outside belongs to Mr. Brown, his eyes everywhere, evoked in a scene at an antiques store where he is never seen but always felt.

Mr. Brown’s girl, Susan (Jean Wallace), is seen as the movie opens trying to flee from her hot-tempered paramour’s henchmen. It is, frankly, just about the most alone time she gets all movie. Even after she takes pills to try and escape the life in which she’s become imprisoned, the cops show up at her hospital bed asking questions. Hints are given as to some past life, in the way she’s moved by opera, but in Wallace’s facial expressions that feels like a memory hardly hanging on. You might wonder why she wound up here in the first place. That, however, is not mere narrative convenience, evinced in an indelible scene where Lewis needs nothing more than insinuation and Wallace’s face. In their home, Mr. Brown advances on Susan, her back to him, desperate for her attention, grabbing hold of her and then sliding down to, well, you know where. And the look on her face is something incredible, like grudging ecstasy, like a less comic, more carnal version, just in reverse, of that scene in “Goodfellas” where Karen convinces Henry to stick around a moment longer for a little you-know-what. I mean, wow, this moment; if “The Big Combo” is about power, this is about as powerful as it gets.

If Mr. Brown wields power over her, Susan wields power over Diamond. He is, we quickly learn, spelled out in detail by his own boss, obsessed with her, even spending money on the police’s dime to observe her, suggesting that his unending efforts to topple Mr. Brown are less about crime and more about infatuation. Not that he’s the knight in yada yada. He has a relationship of his own with a showgirl, Rita (Helene Stanton), he generally acknowledges he treats like dirt, and it’s easy to think he’d do the same with Susan. When he questions her after the overdose, he cruelly withholds water. And this is the one aspect “The Big Combo” can’t quite square. If the walls closing in on are Mr. Brown are ably captured, the end nevertheless rigs it so that Susan and Diamond figuratively ride off into the sunset even as they literally walk into the fog, a conflicting image that winds up feeling just right.

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