Sunday, 23 September 2018

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: THE BIG COMBO


84. “I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.”



23/09/2018




I last saw “The Big Combo” about fifteen years ago, as part of my degree studies, so to find it suddenly in HMV, newly released on blu-ray, made it a no-brainer purchase for someone who only went in for a bit of a browse. The film is almost a stereotypical example of a film noir, with hard-boiled dialogue, hard-boiled actors and hard-boiled shadows. However, the reason I was originally shown the film was more about the uncharacteristic degree of hopefulness that lied behind the film as it was being made.

“The Big Combo” is known as a “nervous A” picture, released by Allied Artists, which had been set up by the B-movie company Monogram as a unit for more lavish and interesting, but still cheaper, productions - it is this thinking that led Jean-Luc Godard to dedicate his first film, "Breathless," to Monogram. Therefore, “The Big Combo” was an example of a film where the use of low light to mark cheap sets, using fewer camera set-ups, and using a jazz-influenced score over a full orchestra, was hoped to be interpreted as style, rather than economy - certainly, that was what happened when Orson Welles made "Touch of Evil" three years later, in 1958. Film noir is a genre made of stark contrasts of black and white, both in the morals of characters as well as on screen, and this film considered a solid, stylish example of how those elements can work. 


The “combo” of “The Big Combo” is run by the sadistic Mr. Brown, who is being investigated by police lieutenant Diamond over what happened to a woman from his past, who has disappeared. Diamond is also obsessed over Mr. Brown’s current girlfriend, Susan, who he only meets for the first time when she turns up in hospital. The disappeared woman, Alicia, is thought to be in Sicily with Mr. Brown’s boss, but in reality, the boss was murdered, and used by Mr. Brown as a cover, while Alicia was placed in an asylum. Diamond, derided by Brown from the outset as a righteous man, with his $96.50 weekly salary used as an insult more than once, is unshakeable in his quest to jail Brown, whose increasingly frantic actions eventually leaves him cornered. In all, so much, so film noir.


Joseph H. Lewis, the film’s director, had been making up to seven films a year when his career began, until his talent led to longer shoots and higher budgets, but the set-up of some shots show his B-movie pedigree – long, almost uncomfortable shots of people reacting, or to allow the acting to breathe. John Alton, the film’s cinematographer, writer of a book explaining his craft titled “Painting with Light,” uses few lights, long shadows, and stark contrasts, which leads to the film’s famous climax at an airport, looking a little like “Casablanca,” where Brown attempts to dodge a spotlight that finally leaves him no place to hide.

The biggest influence “The Big Combo” has made is in a certain scene where Diamond, tied to a chair is tortured by being slapped, having loud music played to them, and by having alcohol forced into them. Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged this is an inspiration for the similar, but more brutal, scene in “Reservoir Dogs,” and hearing the main villain being only referred to as “Mr. Brown” must have suggested an idea too. However, at the time, the use of sound as torture was the bigger talking point, not least when McClure, Brown's former boss, reduced to second-in-command, and owner of the hearing aid used on Dimond, later has the aid taken away as a compassionate so he cannot hear the gunfire that will execute him - we don't hear them either.
Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace, as Diamond and Susan, happily upturned the unhealthy relationship they have in "The Big Combo," as they were already married for four years by the film's 1955 production, and the film was produced by their company, named Theodora - they later had a son, named Cornel Jr.

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