Monday, February 28, 2011

The One-Two Punch

One of my favorite films is Joseph L. Lewis's The Big Combo from 1955.

Richard Conte plays Mr. Brown, the head of a criminal enterprise against which local law enforcement is fighting a losing battle. Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) has become obsessed with stopping Mr. Brown and Co. and, perhaps not incidentally, with saving--and perhaps winning--Brown's girlfriend from the self-destructive spiral into which her association with Mr. Brown has landed her. Once a player and lover of the piano, Susan Lowell (the beautiful and statuesque Jean Wallace) now finds herself under the control of a man she despises yet cannot leave. Brown himself moves from one criminal enterprise to another, always staying a step ahead of the police.

The film has it all: a fabulous noir look where nearly every scene occurs at night and in deep shadow; a collection of maladjusted or misunderstood characters, each wonderfully but economically drawn; a pair of closeted gay hitmen; and a brilliant jazzy soundtrack by David Raksin (who slyly makes his own theme song seem like the hit of the town when the combo at the night club is playing the same tune).

The dialog is often sublime, gritty and sharp, almost poetic. Here's a sample.

When the distraught Susan Lowell tries to kill herself with an overdose of pills, Mr. Brown and Lt. Diamond encounter each other at the hospital. Their conversation (as Peter O'Toole puts it in The Lion In Winter) is tactile, "like two surgeons looking for a lump." Magnificently haughty, Mr. Brown will not deign even to address the Lieutenant standing right next to him. Rather, Mr. Brown speaks to his second-in-command, Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), who in turn translates to the policeman. The loathing of the two principles for each other is palpable:

MCCLURE: Hello, Lieutenant. This is Mr. Brown.

DIAMOND: What do you want, Mr. Brown?

BROWN: Joe, tell the man I want her out.

MCCLURE: Mr. Brown would like to have Miss Lowell released. He'll put her in a private hospital.

DIAMOND: Is he a relative?

MCCLURE: Not exactly.

DIAMOND: Married to her?

MCCLURE: Just a personal friend.

DIAMOND: Yeah, well visiting days are Tuesdays and Fridays. I don't know how you two got in here but you can get out the way you got in.

BROWN: Tell the man not to get excited.

MCCLURE: Mr. Brown is a very reasonable man; you don't know him.

DIAMOND: Oh is he? Well I'm not. I intend to make life very difficult for your Mr. Brown.

MCCLURE: You shouldn't talk like that, Lieutenant. You're overstepping your authority.

BROWN: Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotel make better money than that. Don't you see, Joe? He's a righteous man. Personal feelings mean nothing to him. My girl's dying in a public hospital and I want her out!

DIAMOND: She's under arrest, Mr. Brown.

BROWN: What's the charge?

DIAMOND: Homicide!

BROWN: That's ridiculous; she wouldn't kill a fly.

DIAMOND: She tried to kill herself.

BROWN: Is that crime?

DIAMOND: It happens to be against two laws--god's and man's. I'm booking her under the second.

BROWN: Tell the man if he puts her on trial I'll...

[The scene is interrupted by Miss Lowell being wheeled past on a stretcher. She is delirious, repeating as if in a trance "Alicia... Alicia..." Brown and Diamond follow the stretcher.]

BROWN: Susan!

DIAMOND: Stay away from the prisoner, Mr. Brown.

BROWN: Susan, are you all right?

DIAMOND: Brown, stay where you are!

BROWN: Susan!

[They watch the gurney proceed down the hall and around a corner.]

BROWN: Joe, tell the man I'm going to break him so fast he won't have time to change his pants. Tell him the next time I see him he'll be down in the lobby of the hotel crying like a baby and asking for a $10 loan. Tell him that. And tell him I don't break my word.

DIAMOND: You must have done something pretty fine to get as high as you are, Mr. Brown. I'm looking into that. I'm going to open you up and I'm going to operate. I hate to think of what I'll find.

[Diamond walks away.]

BROWN [with a grudging smile]: What'd I tell you Joe? A righteous man.

Both these principals had long, productive careers Richard Conte's career spanned some 35 years and dozens of films. But he's nowhere better than here, where his very speech sounds like machine gun fire. Never has it been so easy to love to hate someone. And Cornel Wilde was a working actor for fully 50 years.

The whole film can be watched here. Or add it to your Netflix cue. (The scene in question begins at 13:00.)


Sadie Lou said...

I love seeing good movie reviews of older films. Thanks. I'll add it.

wunelle said...

Let me know if you see it; I'm always trying to make converts to the old noir films!

Sadie Lou said...

I've seen quite a few. I love good noir films. One of my favorite movies of all time is Laura.
Do you remember a movie where there is this cottage and there is a maid working at the cottage and then this GI comes to stay at the cottage and he has these scars on his face. The maid is very plain. Somehow, the cottage makes the two of them see each other as very handsome/beautiful and they fall in love. Do you know what this movie is called?

wunelle said...

Laura is a great film.

Don't think I know the film you're describing. I wonder if I've seen it...

Sadie Lou said...

The Enchanted Cottage! It's excellent. It's not noir though...but it's very fetching.