I just watched The Big Combo (1955) again – one of my favorite film noirs. (I talked about it earlier in this post). Fantastic cinematography, and a great cast of characters. It has a rich trove of noir themes, woven together with subtlety and skill.
One reason I like these old B-movies is that they work within a genre, with familiar situations and themes, and we usually aren’t very surprised by the plot developments. (Do we need surprise to enjoy something?) We’ve seen it all before; we know how it will all end. It’s familiar. The repetition of stories and conclusions accumulates to give the latest one the force of myth. No self-conscious striving after effect or novelty. Not that the great ones didn’t innovate, but it was within the limits of the genre.
Cornell Wilde plays Lt. Larry Diamond, a man with a mission. He wants to rid his town of The Big Combo, but the outfit is really just one single man, Mr. Brown. He’s obsessed with Brown, a cold, murderous accountant turned mob leader (Richard Conte) because Brown has quite a girl – Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a society chick who’s fallen pretty low down. Diamond is in love with her, from afar; wants to save her, but she tells him there’s no saving her. She’s lost in a maze, and all paths lead back to Mr. Brown.
She’s a bit of a masochist, this lady, but Mr. Brown also knows how to keep her satisfied. Pretty explicit for 1955.
This Diamond fellow, isn’t so pure either, despite his wish to be the knight to rescue Susan. In fact, he has a problem with women in general.
While he longs for the cool blonde girl who loves classical music, he keeps his needs in check with Rita, a stripper at a club where he hangs out. She loves him and will do anything for him, but she just ends up getting filled with lead by two thugs who think they’re knocking off Diamond when they break into his darkened apartment. She was all dressed up and waiting for a big night with him after work… So, he wants the masochist who won’t have him because she represents something beautiful and pure to him even though she’s as deep in the mud as you can get. And the girl who loves him with a heart of gold, he treats like a worn out bathrobe to throw away when he’s done with it.
But Susan is otherwise engaged. Fante and Mingo, Brown’s thugs, always keep an eye on her comings and goings. At least those two have a loving relationship: they’d die for one another, but they end up double-crossed by Brown and dying together. They aren’t effeminate like the flirty thug in Odds Against Tomorrow: their homoerotic bond is thoroughly masculine. I think the filmmaker uses it to convince us that we really are in the underworld, where such deviant relationships are taken for granted. Is this retrograde or progressive? They are totally against the stereotype of homosexuals as weak and unmanly men.
The film makes use of the abuse of hearing aids as an instrument of torture. Mr. Brown borrows the device from his No. 2 man and shouts and plays loud music into it to show Diamond who’s boss. (He removes the aid from Mr. No.2’s ears when he kills him. “I’ll do you a favor; you won’t hear the bullets.” We see the shooting from the victim’s point of view, without sound.)
“First is first, and second is nobody.” That’s his slogan, and he has nothing but contempt for Diamond whom he describes as steady, intelligent, and with a hankering for a girl he just can’t have. A nobody.
Yes, that girl. She’s at a club when she meets her old piano teacher. The man is delighted to see her again, and eagerly asks how she is progressing with her music. She has to break the news to him that she has given it up…such a wasted talent! She asks him to dance with him while Fante and Mingo look on, making sure there’s no funny business. Suddenly, she starts to swoon. “I’ve taken some pills…I think I’m going to die!” There it is, Sex & Death, Eros & Thanatos. In her attempted suicide she looks just as she did when Mr. Brown was bringing her to an orgasm.