(1955) dir. Joseph H. Lewis
I had a friend who was bugging me for months to see this film. Then it came and played the Castro Theatre as part of their Noir City festival. And of course I missed it. And my friend pestered me again. So I queued it up in Netflix and got it.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, director of the classic Noir film, Gun Crazy (1950), which is pretty damn excellent, and photographed by John Alton, The Big Combo is a rock-solid Noir flick, with some beautiful shots, especially the playful use of shadow, sometimes in the classic sense of menace, but also interestingly used inside the Cornell Wilde, the detective’s office. The scene is lit from the front so the characters in the foreground throw these huge bulbous shadows as they gesticulate and walk around.
Another classic aspect of the film is the great character acting. Richard Conte, Jean Wallace, and Cornell Wilde are great as the leads but it also features a young Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, and a great performance by Robert Middleton as the aging tough guy with a hearing aid.
The hearing aid is used in one of the movie’s most bizarre and interesting sequences. Conte, the villainous Mr. Brown, puts the hearing aid into Wilde’s ear and cranks up a radio playing a really wild jazz drum solo as a form of torture (one that won’t leave a mark.) One of the more unusual pieces in the movie, but the use of the hearing aid as menace and also as a way of cowing the aging Middleton, it’s pretty funny.
There is a lot of light and shadow work in the film. It’s probably the highlight, really. The finale actually plays heavily on Conte being caught “in the light”, the searchlight from the police car, a light he cannot escape, is blinded by, and finally succumbs to. Hey, this is what Noir is all about, right?