Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)

(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t used to seeing at the local bijou. Lewis, aided and abetted by cinematographer John Alton , uses that script as a springboard for some darkly dazzling visuals; the opening scene alone, with a young girl being chased down a dark alley by two menacing thugs, finds Lewis and Alton showing off their talents. The film moves at lightning speed, a pedal-to-the-metal noir that doesn’t let up until the chilling conclusion inside an airplane hangar.

Cornel Wilde  is the obsessed police detective determined to put an end to Mr. Brown’s reign of terror. Wilde had started his own production company along with his wife Jean Wallace (who plays Brown’s moll Susan), and this was their first release. Wallace does fair work in the part, though her performance is eclipsed by the rest of the cast. THE BIG COMBO got them off to a slam-bang start, and their next production, STORM FEAR, found Wilde in the director’s chair for the first time, a seat he would take again for films like THE NAKED PREY, BEACH RED, and NO BLADE OF GRASS.

Mr. Brown wasn’t Richard Conte’s first gangster role, nor would it be his last, but it may very well be his best. Mr. Brown is a smug cocksure sadist, deriding Wilde’s Lt. Diamond every chance he gets (“Book me, small change”, he sneers, referencing the cop’s low-wage job), and his staccato line delivery aids the film’s breakneck pace. Brian Donlevy , no stranger to gangster parts himself, plays his second-in-command McClure, once a big shot, now reduced to flunky status. Donlevy was one of noir’s greatest character actors, and his McClure adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. Helen Walker , in her final screen role, plays the mysterious “Alicia”; to say more about the character would spoil the film, and I want you to see it for yourselves! Suffice it to say Miss Walker gives a bravura career finale.

Many modern critics see ‘gay subtext’ everywhere they look in older films; most of the time it’s something that’s not really there. But the characters of Brown’s hit men Fante and Mingo are without question “more than just friends” in this one. It isn’t anything overt, but Yordan’s script subtly suggests these two psychcopaths are homosexual lovers, and the performances of screen tough guys Lee Van Cleef (Fante) and Earl Holliman (Mingo) leave no doubt in my mind about their off-duty relationship. They don’t flaunt their sexual persuasion or camp it up, but watching their nuanced performances, you just know there’s something beneath the surface. Kudos to both actors for giving these stone-cold killers a deeper shading.

THE BIG COMBO is a gripping crime drama in every way, and a fitting end to Lewis’s film noir body of work. It’s dark, sordid, and unsavory, and must-see for fans of the genre. Those who’ve never had the opportunity to watch it are missing a real treat – and since it’s in public domain, I’ll give you that opportunity right now! Consider it my “Happy Noir Year” present to you and enjoy!:

All for One, Fun for All: AT SWORD’S POINT (RKO 1952)

France in 1648 is in upheaval: Cardinal Richelieu has passed away, the Queen is ill, and evil Duc de Lavelle is plotting to usurp the crown by forcing a marriage to Princess Henriette and murder young Prince Louis. The Queen summons the only persons that can help: her trusted Musketeers! But the quartet have either grown old or died, and in their stead come their equal-to-the-task children, Cornel Wilde (D’Artagnon Jr.), Dan O’Herlihy (Aramis Jr.), Alan Hale Jr (Porthos Jr.), and – Maureen O’Hara , daughter of Athos!!

AT SWORD’S PONT isn’t a great movie, but it is a fairly entertaining one, with lots of flashing swordplay, leaping about, cliffhanging perils, and narrow escapes. It kind of plays like a Saturday matinee serial, and there’s a lot of fun to be had, with Cornel Wilde a dashing D’Artagnon Jr, O’Herlihy a competent second fiddle, and Hale doing his usual good-natured lug thing. But it’s marvelous Maureen who kept me captivated throughout, her flaming red hair streaming as she battles side by side with the male Musketeers. She’s no slouch with that sword either; Maureen could buckle her swash with the best of ’em! 

The backstory behind the making of AT SWORD’S POINT may actually be more interesting than the movie itself. Republic first announced it would make the film in 1947, based on a screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. It ended up being filmed two years later at RKO, then sat on the shelf another two years. When it was finally released, Walter Ferris and Joseph Hoffman got the screenwriting credits, with Wisberg and Pollexfen credited for the story only. By this point I’m sure they didn’t care, having moved on to form their own Mid Century Productions, making low budget flicks from 1951’s MAN FROM PLANET X to 1961’s SECRET OF MONTE CRISTO. Why the movie sat so long is unclear; no doubt notoriously meddling RKO boss Howard Hughes had something to do with that!

The supporting cast offers fine performances from Gladys Cooper as Queen Anne and Blanche Yurka as tavern keeper and Musketeer aide Madame Michom. Robert Douglas makes a hissable villain, Nancy Gates a regal Princess, and Familiar Faces Tanis Chandler, Tris Coffin, Holmes Herbert, Lucien Litlefield, and Phil Van Zandt pop up as well. Director Lewis Allen has some good films on his resume (THE UNINVITED, SO EVIL MY LOVE, CHICAGO DEADLINE, SUDDENLY ), and keeps the action running along swiftly. Roy Webb’s jaunty main theme sounded suspiciously familiar to me – compare it to John Williams’ theme from 1978’s SUPERMAN and judge for yourselves!

AT SWORD’S POINT is an ‘A’ film in intent, but ‘B’ in execution. It’s hardly a classic of the swashbuckler genre, but it has it’s moments and can certainly be enjoyed on a mindless level. The bold Technicolor helps give it a big budget sheen, Maureen is both lovely and dangerous, Wilde is a heroic D’Artagnon, and it’s all harmless fun. It’s light and breezy and if you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, by all means give it a shot.

 

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