Considering its fame and reputation, The Big Combo might initially scan as a curiously dry and talky procedural lacking the energy and perversity of, say, Fritz Lang’s similarly themed and titled The Big Heat. The protagonist, Police Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde), is mostly a bore, the kind of Dudley Do-Right so convinced he’s treading the righteous path that he’s too quick to get incensed when a partner or superior dares to greet his expensive vigilante tactics with understandable incredulity. By contrast, crime boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) is nearly sympathetic: Sure, he keeps his girl, Susan (Jean Wallace), in a state of stunted emotional paralysis that’s unambiguously a form of domestic abuse, and he’s a bully and an aspiring snob who probably killed either his former boss, or ex-wife, or both, but he’s unencumbered by hypocritical self-righteousness.
The Big Combo’s perversity largely hits you on the rebound: It’s another 1950s American film that’s implicitly concerned with repression, which director Joseph H. Lewis expresses formally with tight, compressed close-ups. The film appears to have been mostly shot on sets, and Lewis astutely turns that potential limitation to his advantage: The depth of focus is often pointedly shallow, and the backgrounds are often blacked out in manners that imbue the film with a sense of heightened theatricality. The characters appear to be imprisoned in the foreground, exposed, attempting to huff and bluff their way away from the perhaps inevitable exorcisms of their demons.
The demons under Lewis’s consideration are mostly sexual. There’s an astonishingly suggestive moment early in the film when Mr. Brown approaches Susan in the midst of one their usual arguments essentially revolving around his incorrigible sociopathic reduction of her individuality, which leaves her feeling cheap and embarrassed. A more conventional film, particularly of this era, would’ve concluded the scene so that Susan is simply pitiable as a woman trapped, but Lewis brings the camera closer and closer on the actors as Brown draws closer and closer to Susan, as she eventually lets out an unmistakably orgasmic sigh as he springs upon her. In just a few seconds we understand once again why so many women go for the bad boy, and the answer is what we always suspected: They’re better in the sack. One doesn’t get the impression that the relentlessly tight-assed Diamond could inspire such a moan of anguished, guilty satisfaction, but, then again, who knows? Diamond clearly has his own kinks: He carries on his own clandestine affairs with women of the night, only voicing superficial sentiments of remorse, and, as The Big Combo bluntly states, his quest to take Brown down has a lot to do with his understandably considerable sexual feelings for the gorgeous Susan.
The film understands that the truly wild movies are casual about their wildness, accepting a state of anything goes as status quo. Lewis and screenwriter Philip Yordan matter-of-factly reveal a traditional tale of a cop’s pursuit of a kingpin as having virtually nothing to do with honoring law and order and everything to do with private vendettas that tumble into reality out of the realms of our submerged desires. (Even one of Brown’s henchmen is shown to be unmoored from his homosexual impulses.) The Big Combo is scary, and disturbing, because it never entirely gives over to the kind of outright hysteria that might serve as a catharsis, and so the feelings of cloaked desperation are never expunged. Brown is eventually caught, sure, but not, tellingly, in a fiery hail of bullets. Instead, he’s dragged unwillingly away into the darkness.
The transfer has problems that could be glaring for folks solely accustomed to sterling five-star Blu-ray presentations, even of other older films. There are plenty of scratches and daylight scenes are often notably soft, but the sharpness of the blacks is remarkable and draws welcome attention to the film’s strikingly angular nighttime compositions. Flawed, yes, but it’s nice to see an old movie that looks like an old movie and yet still manages to present a wealth of visual information that’s significantly improved over prior viewing methods. The English DTS-HD Master Audio track, however, is inarguably sharp and nuanced.
Yes, The Big Combo is barren of extras in the tradition of most Olive Films releases, but this is an otherwise solid presentation of a beautifully perverse noir staple.