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!:

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.