Predating the percussion based anxiety of Whiplash (2014) and Birdman (2014) by over half a century, a mid-film sequence in The Big Combo suggests the power of violence that leaves no marks. Tied to a chair, Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is tortured using sound. A hearing aid in one ear as music and voices blast and destroy his inner ear. The scene is topped off as they nearly drown him in alcohol, destroying any credibility he has. In some of the starkest black and white in Hollywood history, the movement and formation of the scene, in Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro reaches operatic levels of poetry and brutal violence. A scene, towards the end of the film, echoes this deafening sound, as a hearing aid is removed and machine guns blast in fatal silence.
The Big Combo comes at the tail-end of the golden age of film noir that includes films like Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Touch of Evil (1957) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Lt. Leonard Diamond is obsessed with bringing to justice crime boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), but can never find enough to put him away. At a loss of where to go next, Diamond starts pursuing Brown’s girl Susan (Jean Wallace) for answers.
This is a film of faces and Joseph H. Lewis, does his best to engage directly with the natural forms of his actors’ faces. His style, drawing it seems from the silent cinema, puts a gleam in the eyes of his characters – a bright shining light shedding a sparkle in their eye. Is it heartache or is it passion? The line is fine. Glowing in white, Jean Wallace has a perfectly symmetrical face and mouth that doesn’t once crack a smile. Lee Van Cleef’s sharp, angular face and handsome broad-shouldered body contrasts hard and soft. In an aggressive and confrontational choice, most shots of Richard Conte face him directly towards the camera, as if he were addressing the audience directly: His power over the film feels overwhelming.
This is a film of exaggerated desire and power dynamics. Like many other noirs before it, it is about men who are fighting for control. This ends of being exemplified in sexual displacement and fetishism. This film infamously skirted the production code with heavy insinuations of homosexuality, fetishism and oral sex. Subtle but unmistakable, the film equates sex with the social dynamics. Diamond and Brown, two sides of the same kind, in particular how their value is weighed by the women they sleep with and desire.
Diamond, like Johnny Farell in Gilda, searches for women who will overpower him. On one hand, he pursues Susan who will likely never return his affection, and on the other you have Rita, who Farrell uses, “I treated her like a pair of gloves. When I was cold, I called her up.” She was a vehicle for his desire, he was fixated on her shoes and in a memorable scene transition, there is a heavy insinuation that he goes down on her. She was a substitute for Susan, but he still positioned her on a pedestal. Also like Farrell, he values his own pleasure above all else, and his pursuit of desire leaves a string of bodies in his wake.
The film, like most of Joseph H. Lewis’ films, is in constant motion and populated by characters from different walks of life. Lewis’ films feel a little more lived in and a little more fantastic than his contemporaries. The final sequence in The Big Combo, not unlike the final sequence in Gun Crazy, is cast in mist and shadows. Perhaps this is a tool to save money, to make a production and a set look more elaborate than it is, but it also lends mythology to his work. Lost in the mist, as “The End” appears onscreen, there is a sense of closure but there is also an overwhelming sense of dread. This chapter might be over, but this resolution doesn’t change the fact the world is a scary place and it doesn’t change the fact that fight as we may – we’re attracted to the darkness.