Raw and violent, steeped in the film noir tradition, this cult classic ventures into the seamy gangster underworld, oozing with seediness and low-life characters. Far ahead of its time, "The Big Combo" takes a dark, disturbing look at the battle between Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde), a good cop, and Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), a sadistic crime boss--and the cool blonde who gets caught in the middle (Jean Wallace, married to Wilde in real life at the time). With the help of the gangster's ex-girlfriend, Diamond is determined to bring down the cunning gangland kingpin. But the gangsters are ruthless. They savagely pummel Diamond and conduct gut-wrenchingly brutal acts of torture that were unusual on screen at the time of the film's release.
A prime example of the American film noir style that flourished during the 1940s and '50s, The Big Combo
is now highly regarded as a stylistic milestone for its innovative use of deep shadows and harsh, singular light sources to define its visual strategy. This look is largely credited to the rule-breaking brilliance of cinematographer John Alton, who turns a standard plot of the era into a richly atmospheric experiment in visual invention. Ignoring conventional approaches to lighting, Alton defines the screen in terms of blackness, often framing characters as silhouettes cast in ominous grays or thick, roiling fogs. Moving from clarity to abstraction with masterful grades in between, Alton's trend-setting style has been celebrated by cinematographers since the film's release in 1955.
The film's plot keeps brisk pace with the visuals, focusing on the obsessive efforts of a tenacious detective (Cornel Wilde) to destroy a sadistic mobster (Richard Conte) whose vicious influence has nearly ruined the life of the woman (Jean Wallace) he keeps under his dark wing. Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman are nicely cast as the villain's toady henchmen, and Brian Donlevy's usual limitations serve him well as the humbled, frustrated kingpin who's been stifled by Conte's ambition. Director Joseph H. Lewis previously demonstrated his raw, stylistic vigor with the earlier cult favorite Gun Crazy, and here he's in peak form with a perfect match of subject and sensibility. The result is hard-boiled entertainment that still packs a punch. --Jeff Shannon