Big Combo, The (Blu-ray Review)30 Sep, 2013 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace.
As gold standards go, Jean Wallace comes pretty close to filling the bill as noir’s definitive “silky” blonde in a Joseph H. Lewis classic B-pic (or shaky-A) about cop obsessions — one that, over the years, has come to be as highly regarded as the director’s all-timer Gun Crazy. The actress is center-stage in the opening scene, getting chased by unsavory hired hands in the employ of a mob Mr. Big, a recipient of all the expressive lighting the great John Alton can give her. Alton: what an amazement. He was the auteur on just about every noir he shot (and also the genre’s best) – yet his relatively infrequent color work for Vincente Minnelli was not too shabby, either, and got him a shared Oscar for An American in Paris.
The Combo storyline claims to fame are a) a degree of brutality that was way out of the norm for 1955 (and still elicits a reaction today); and, b) assuming you have the kind of mind that interprets what director Lewis intended, the first Hollywood movie to suggest cunnilingus (a word, to my surprise, that spell-check doesn’t recognize). There was a Lewis interview sometime in the ’70s (Film Comment is my best guess) where he says that he thought the movie needed some kind of suggestion why such a cultured onetime piano student (Wallace) would take up with a guy as sleazy as the story’s Big guy (Richard Conte) — leading to a cheeky brainstorm that he shot it on a day when lead Cornel Wilde (Wallace’s real-life husband) wasn’t around, irking the actor to no end. This doesn’t explain why Wilde left it in because the film was from his production company — just before he started directing on his own in a series of pictures with Wallace. But it does explain the bit where, in an already emotional scene, Conte’s head goes out of frame to … well, somewhere … and Wallace expresses some kind of mixture of what looks like shame and enjoyment. The scene is over in a blink, and it’s easy to overemphasize its effect — yet I’ll never forget when I was interviewing an Oscar-winning director in his office back in the VHS era and spotted a Combo tape on the shelf in back of his desk. When I spontaneously said, “Ooooo, The Big Combo — a great movie,” he immediately shot back without missing a beat: “First cunnilingus scene in movie history.” Scholarship, scholarship.
Wilde is almost as bonkers in his obsessions as fellow cop Dana Andrews is in Laura — taken, as Andrews is, with the beauty who figures in his case and also with an unbridled pursuit of Conte that’s about as rabidly intense as Robert Kennedy looking for books to throw at Jimmy Hoffa. His superior (Robert Middleton) is raising his eyebrow over Wilde’s disproportionately allocated expense reports, but Wilde keeps chugging away without apology – trying to bring down this creep in expensive suits who keeps taunting him over low cop pay and the fact that he’s the one with the girl (though, man, is the Wallace character ever a bundle of nerves for all her yowza-ness). There’s also a lot of super stuff involving Conte’s henchmen: Brian Donlevy as a subordinate who’s been pushed around to the breaking point by his boss – plus a pair of enforcers played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman. I’ve never been totally certain if we’re supposed to assume that the latter two are gay; maybe they’re just sharing the same room because Conte is better at paring expenses than Wilde. But I did hear a fairly sizable movie house let loose with a knowing snicker one time in the scene where the camera pulls back to reveal that Holliman is in an adjacent bed.
As with Olive’s recent release of God’s Little Acre, the print here is from a preservation job by UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, which you can believe was hip to the upswing in the movie’s rep (I attended a Telluride screening in 1980 where Lewis appeared with my old NYU film prof William K. Everson). To my surprise, Combo played the most majestic of my hometown’s movie palaces in April of 1955, billed above Edgar G. Ulmer’s Murder Is My Beat, which makes me wonder (fancifully, of course) whether the chain’s booker had an auteurist bent. The other Loew’s theater, a block over, was playing the popular religious biopic A Man Called Peter, which certainly offered moviegoers a choice.