The Big Combo (1955)

Lieutenant Leonard Diamond is a man with two obsessions. His target is the sinister Mr. Brown, head of the Combination, a nationwide criminal organisation. He’s been investigating him for six months, and his Captain is unhappy at the expense involved and lack of results. What’s complicating matters is that during the course of his surveillance he’s fallen in love with Mr. Brown’s girl Susan (played by Jean Wallace) despite having never met her. When he does finally meet her – sedated in hospital after her suicide attempt – she repeats a single name: “Alicia.” She has no idea what it means, but Diamond senses a lead…

While it’s not as violent as some, The Big Combo is pretty much as tough as film noir gets in a psychological sense. It can be a depressing watch, as a seemingly endless parade of supporting characters – good guys, bad guys, and a mixture of both – line up to be shot down, humiliated, belittled, driven to madness or suicide, slapped, used and abused, and even blown up in one memorable scene. And all at the hands of one man.

Richard Conte steals the show as Mr. Brown. He’s utterly chilling, and one of the great noir villains. He is unremittingly brutal, ice cold, ruthless, and clearly but subtly psychopathic (there’s no foaming at the mouth or histrionics.) He has a sharp tongue and a way with words, which he utilises when expertly and clinically belittling those around him. It really is a tremendous performance.

Lee Van Cleef as Fante (one half of Fante and Mingo, two gay Combination hit men) is also very good, but unfortunately no one in the rest of the cast makes much of an impression. There are no bad performances as such, but few that stand out. Cornel Wilde in the lead has good moments but generally is rather bland.

The direction is classic noir, as is the cinematography. It’s clearly a low budget affair but like the best of the genre those limitations are overcome admirably, leading to some striking visuals.

It’s filled with great moments – to list them would be to spoil them – but special mention has to go to the scene where Mr. Brown is set up, the end of which will send shivers down your spine.

Highly recommended, The Big Combo is in the Public Domain and can be legally viewed for free at

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Stars:Richard Conte, Jean Wallace and Cornel Wilde
Runtime: 84 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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