Cornel Wilde plays a police detective obsessed with bringing down crime lord Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), while hoping at the same time to win the affections of Conte’s girl, Jean Wallace, in this tremendously atmospheric noir from 1955. The noir genre wouldn’t last much longer (many contend that 1958’s “Touch of Evil” is the last true noir), but it went out with a bang, giving us some of its best examples (this, “Kiss Me Deadly,” “On Dangerous Ground”) in its last years.
Wilde plays detective Leonard Diamond like a man coming apart at the seams. His determination to bring an end to Brown’s reign feels as if it’s fueled by personal motivations as much as by a sense of justice. This ambiguity in the hero’s actions adds to the rotten atmosphere created by director Joseph Lewis, in which the bad guys often have more allure than the good ones. Richard Conte certainly has magnetism to spare; his monotone, machine-gun patter when belittling Diamond for being a “little man” nearly makes you forget that Wilde towers over Conte whenever they’re in the frame together. And, despite his chauvinist treatment of her, one can understand why Jean Wallace’s character would be drawn against her will to the more virile Conte than to the “impotent” Wilde.
Indeed, the question of manhood — who has it and who doesn’t — is central to “The Big Combo.” It’s a theme common to the genre, but is given one of its most overt treatments here. In this twisted world, the ability to inflict pain — be it mental, emotional, physical or sexual — is a measure of one’s ability to “be a man” and make it in the world. Those who aren’t man enough, like Mr. Brown’s gay henchmen or right-hand man, McClure (played with just the right amount of vulnerability by Brian Donlevy), are destroyed.
“The Big Combo” boasts arresting black and white images, and a number of thrillingly memorable set pieces (let’s just say that imaginative and recurring use is made of a hearing aid). It doesn’t beat its kissing cousin from the same year, “Kiss Me Deadly,” in my book, but it’s an awfully fun ride.