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The Big Combo(1955)
Far ahead of its time, The Big Combo takes a dark, disturbing look at the battle between Police Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde), a good and honest cop, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), a sadistic crime boss and Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a cool and beautiful blonde who gets caught in the middle. With the help of the gangster's ex-girlfriend, Diamond is determined to bring down the cunning gangland kingpin. But the gangster and his henchmen are ruthless. They savagely pummel Diamond and conduct gut-wrenchingly brutal acts of torture that were unusual on screen at the time of the film's release.
For more about The Big Combo and the The Big Combo Blu-ray release, see the The Big Combo Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 1, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton (I), Lee Van Cleef
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
» See full cast & crew
The Big Combo Blu-ray Review
Painting with light, indeed.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 1, 2013
It's de rigeur during awards season to hear those involved with any given film talk about how cinema is the "most collaborative art", and while some may attribute statements like that to mere public relations hype, there's a case to be made that without the singular symbiosis of many different disciplines working in tandem with each other, films, whether great or not so great, simply wouldn't get made. How many times, though, have you attended a film at a theater and seen the majority of the audience stand up and leave during the final credits roll, as if those scores (and indeed at times, hundreds) of names scroll by simply weren't really a part of whatever filmic equation had just been experienced? All sorts of people who consider themselves prime film lovers can probably recite who starred in and directed, and perhaps even wrote, the last film they saw, but typically the list ends there, except for self-professed geeks (my hand is raised, make no mistake) who have an interest in, say, editing or film scoring or some other craft that completes the cinematic casserole. Film noir is often thought of as a director's genre, one which was given life by auteurs (whether major or minor) who brought their own darkling visions to often morally ambiguous characters and situations. But here's a corollary thesis that harkens back to that "collaborative" ethos that is bandied about by those in the industry with such regularity: where would noir be as a genre without a host of dedicated cinematographers? Indeed, simply taking the genre's name on its most literal level, it would seem that noir is inherently a visual style as much as it was ever formulated by pure content. And while a director's choices in creating that style can't be minimized, neither can the technique of the cinematographer, perhaps in noir more so than in any other single genre. And so we come to the inimitable work of John Alton, a DP whose name is legendary among the cognoscenti but whose achievements have been weirdly underappreciated by the public at large.
Almost incredibly, Alton was only nominated once for an Academy Award, but at least the Academy had the good sense to award the statuette to Alton (and Alfred Gilks) for their delicious Technicolor achievement in An American in Paris. That candy colored fantasy may indeed have been an impeccable piece of camera craft, but it's perhaps in black and white that Alton's technique is most fully on display. Alton wrote a fascinating 1949 book on cinematography entitled Painting With Light (which comes highly recommended, even for those without any particular technical knowledge), and indeed that title probably best describes Alton's incredible approach toward chiaroscuro, which is firmly on display throughout The Big Combo, regularly cited as one of Alton's supreme achievements in black and white cinematography.
Cornel Wilde portrays hardbitten police lieutenant Leonard Diamond, who has engaged on a relentless quest to bring a local gangland bigwig named Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) to justice. Complicating matters is the fact that Diamond is more than slightly enamored with Brown's moll, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace, Wilde's real life wife). Susan is not a willing compatriot of Brown's, however, and attempts suicide early in the film. (This is a really odd, and perhaps even disturbing, plot point, for Wallace reportedly attempted suicide twice prior to marrying Wilde.) A cat and mouse game of sorts ensues, with Diamond and Brown actually trading roles of predator and prey at least once in the film.
Kind of like the Feds bringing Al Capone down on a tax charge, Diamond decides the way to get to Brown is to uncover the mystery surrounding a woman named Alicia, setting him off on a tour through various shady characters, with at least a couple of ugly murders following in his wake. He also is working simultaneously—albeit a good deal more haltingly—to pry Susan away from Brown.
While from a plot or even structural standpoint, The Big Combo is not the most bristling noir ever made, yet it positively oozes atmosphere, mostly due to the incredible photography of Alton. Over and over again characters enter the frame with their outsized shadows exploding across upstage walls like so many sinister doppelgangers. At other times, characters will move from isolated pools of light through near pitch blackness, only to reemerge later—if only for a moment—in another island of brightness. Even individual facets are lit beautifully, with parts of faces being obscured by shadows, frequently the eyes, as if Alton understood these characters didn't want anyone peering too closely at them.
The performances here are mostly great. Probably outshining the star duo are Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef as Brown's henchmen, along with Brian Donlevy making a great impression as a third "assistant villain", this time with a hearing aid that Mr. Brown turns into a weapon in a memorable scene. Conte is surprisingly nasty, if awfully emotionally tamped down, as the chief baddie, whispering rather than shouting his threats, and making more of a frightening impression by taking that tack. Wilde, while perhaps not quite as visceral as other hardscrabble noir obsessed men, does well at depicting Diamond's resolute determination to bring Brown to justice. That leaves Wallace, an actress who seems at least at little out of her element here. She certainly has the alluring looks of a proper femme fatale, but perhaps due to her high pitched voice, she just doesn't seem to have the gravitas a role like this needs. That said, Susan is not a typical noir female; she's not luring a man to his destruction, at least not in the traditional sense. Susan is almost like a fly caught in a trap, uncertain—until the film's closing moments—how to find a decent way out.
The Big Combo Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Big Combo is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. This is the first Olive release that I can recall bearing a label indicating:
Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in association with The Film Foundation. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation. Newly re-mastered in HD by Olive Films and Ignite Films.This is at least a kind of tangentially interesting development, considering that Olive chose not to utilize the UCLA restoration of The Quiet Man, and at the very least did not label Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as having been sourced from the UCLA restoration if they did in fact use that version.
While some may feel I'm being a bit overgenerous in my score here, aside from some typical age related damage, relegated almost exclusively to a few white specks that recur throughout this presentation, this is an incredibly lustrous accounting of Alton's gorgeous cinematography, with beautifully modulated gray scale, impressively resolute blacks and bright, distinctive whites. Alton and director Joseph H. Lewis stage a number of scenes in fog enshrouded environments, and this high definition presentation has no problem whatsoever resolving the misty environments without a hint of noise or instability. Fine detail is excellent in close-ups and even midrange shots. While Alton never really uses deep focus, there's interesting depth of field established here with objects or characters often looming in the foreground with other visual information filling the back of the frame. The image remains sharp and well detailed even in techniques like this. There is some very minor haloing in evidence in a couple of shots, but it's not a major distraction in what is otherwise a really great looking high definition presentation.
The Big Combo Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Big Combo features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track which presents a "big combo" of its own—David Raksin's brass drenched score, which sounds bombastic and clear as a bell here. Dialogue is also very cleanly presented. Fidelity is excellent and dynamic range gets a workout from both Raksin's music and an occasional gun burst or two.
The Big Combo Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
No supplements are offered on this Blu-ray disc.
The Big Combo Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Big Combo may not be the most iconic noir ever made, but it's an essential one nonetheless, one which presents the gorgeous lighting techniques of John Alton in full flower. The film has some fantastic supporting performances and an all around dour and appropriately hard bitten ambience, but it's the look of the film (along, perhaps, with David Raksin's bombastic score) that will stay with the viewer for long after Diamond and Susan disappear into a fog enshrouded nightscape. This Blu-ray offers great video and audio and comes Highly recommended.
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The Big Combo Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Olive Films to Release Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo - July 17, 2013
Olive Films will release on Blu-ray director Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo (1955), starring Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Lee Van Cleef, and Jean Wallace. The preliminary release date set by the studio is September 24th.
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