4 June 2001 | dcavallo
Sleazy gangster-noir tale of obsession and revenge..
Now that DVD is fast becoming the medium of choice for many film enthusiasts, some lesser known, lower budget titles are finding their way to wider audiences.
Joseph Lewis's "The Big Combo" has made this trip to digital, and thankfully none of the film's captivating sleaze has been stripped away in the transfer.
What appears to be a fairly stock story of straight-arrow police detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) obsessed with capturing a foreboding gangland chieftain, Mr. Brown, "Combo" is an unusually hardboiled, over the top tale of revenge and murder that will please and perhaps even surprise noir and crime-drama fans.
Over the course of the protracted investigation, Diamond, who has nearly lost his badge because of his stubborn determination, has fallen for the boss's dame -- a society girl gone so wrong she figures suicide is the only way out. But Mr. Brown (Richard Conte, excellent as the 'last-name only' control freak) is as omnipotent and omniscient as a head pit boss in Vegas, taunting and manipulating every one around him with an unsettling equanimity.
He tells Diamond, who is virtually powerless to do anything but temporarily hold the murderous Brown and his men on trivial charges, that "the busboys in his hotel" make more money than he does. Even Brown's right hand man, the hearing impaired McClure (Brian Donlevy)is mercilessly ridiculed for his second tier status.
And Brown is obsessed with his prowess with women as Diamond is with capturing him and wooing his moll. The film is filled with risque sexual allusions as wild as anything from director Sam Fuller.
In one scene, Brown manuevers around his girl, stopping briefly at her lips, but then dropping out of frame, seemingly down past her waist. And Diamond cavorts with a "burlesque" dancer (with a heart of gold, natch) who appears in a skimpy outfit that is titillating even by today's television standards.
But the most ribald bits to make it past the censors involve Brown's bickering henchmen, Fante and Mingo. Fante, played by the aquiline Lee Van Cleef, appears to be a typical hood, but midway through the film the lights come up in a bedroom where the two men have been sleeping in remarkably close quarters.
Later, sequestered in a mob-hideout, the two engage in thinly-veiled homoerotic banter that will leave you howling.
As will some of the other scenes -- torture by drum solo, a Casablanca inspired finale. Throughout the picture Brown and Diamond dance around one another sans gene, to the sound of gunshots and acid-tongued banter.
"The Big Combo" is taut, gutter entertainment, delivered in precise black and white. Even if you do watch it on DVD.