Thursday, 6 September 2018

Boxing Clever:
Four Film Noir Classics
(Arrow Academy / 2017)

I’m sure I must have griped before in these pages about the overly broad definition of the term “film noir” often employed in publicity materials for revival screenings and DVD/Blu-ray releases, and my fear that this misplaced enthusiasm may result in the (originally rather rarefied) ‘noir’ label being arbitrarily slapped on pretty much every black and white Hollywood film that is neither a comedy nor a musical.

So where DO we draw the line, I hear you ask? Well, more so even than other retrospectively applied genre boundaries, the dense web of thematic tropes, socio-cultural context and aesthetic devices that define each individual movie fan’s idea of ‘noir’ leaves one hell of unruly borderland territory, waiting to be claimed.

Rather like the equally fruitless arguments one could instigate over the exact point at which a film about some people killing some other people becomes a horror film though, we’re probably best to put the whole mess aside and just fall back on the old chestnut that we know it when we see it - an admittedly worthless, dumb-headed methodology that, happily, functions to kill any debate on the nature of the genre in question stone-dead, leaving us with no choice but to talk about the movie itself instead.

The exact same grimly reactionary get-out, you’ll note, soon becomes equally unavoidable when trying to nail down the nature of a “classic”, and as such -- after issuing a disclaimer that I always, always celebrate and commend lovingly restored releases of obscure, studio era American movies and am perfectly happy for labels to call them whatever the hell they please if it will help shift a few copies -- it is my sad duty to begin this review by advising consumers that, by my count, Arrow’s 2017 box set of ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ contains at best about one and a half noirs and two classics.

Regrettably moreover, it has taken me so long to get around to watching all of these films and writing about them that the box set in question is now long sold out. But, since it has now been replaced by individual releases of the four featured movies, I hope that perhaps my belated reflections may still prove helpful in helping some noir-curious readers to push their shekels in the right direction and avoid the pitfalls, who knows. So without further ado, let’s quit mixin’ metaphors and get stuck in.

Though it was released in the same year as his twin masterpieces ‘The Spiral Staircase’ and ‘The Killers’, even the most ardent defender of Robert Siodmak’s legacy would have difficulty boosting 1946’s The Dark Mirror much beyond the level of a minor curiosity within the filmography of this retrospectively revered director.

A glib and rather airless identical twins murder mystery whose logic revolves primarily around a series of unlikely coincidences, ‘The Dark Mirror’ was adapted from what we must presume was a similarly uninspired magazine story (by French scriptwriter Vladimir Pozner) and showcases Hollywood’s unsavoury late ‘40s fixation with mental illness and psychoanalysis (cf: ‘Spellbound’, etc.) at its most naïve and schematic.

As our nominal protagonist, head-shrink and “twin expert” Lew Ayres comes across as smug, sleazy and, most chronically, boring in his attempts to determine which of the two available Olivia de Havillands [“good” (demure, introverted) or “bad” (pushy, aggressive) varieties] iced some dude in his study, even as the film seems to expect us to be enthralled by his Rorschach tests and interminable (Production Code-acceptable) Freud-for-Dummies type musings.

Dialogue-heavy and largely confined to a handful of cramped interior sets, much of ‘The Dark Mirror’ feels like stuff that could have been repurposed for an episode of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ a few decades later, making it a profoundly skippable business for general 21st century viewers. I confess I would have been pretty angry if I’d shelled out £15 for Arrow’s stand-alone release expecting a “film noir classic”, but as part of a box set it proved diverting enough. Indeed, for Siodmak completists, researchers into the history of “evil twin” movies (definite precursors for both ‘Sisters’ and ‘Dead Ringers’ here I feel), or merely fans of the darker side of ‘40s Hollywood melodrama in general, there are still a few redeeming features to be enjoyed herein.

Most notably, de Havilland’s performance is, frankly, excellent. She differentiates and humanises her two characters in a far more convincing manner than the script really deserves, shouldering most of the burden when it comes to creating the ambiguities between them that drive the film’s suspense factor. Meanwhile, the camera trickery used to accomplish the scenes in which both de Havillands are on screen together is frequently ingenious, never drawing attention to itself or upsetting the flow of the drama; effects-wise, it feels like a master-class in how to do this sort of thing well that would stand up even today.

Siodmak too was clearly still on top of his game here despite the dreary material and what I presume must have been a fairly meagre production budget, occasionally busting loose with some of his trademark dramatic intensity for a few great, cinematic flourishes. The most memorable of these takes us almost into gothic horror territory, recalling ‘The Spiral Staircase’ as a nocturnal shot of a forlorn figure in the apartment building’s front garden pulls back through an upstairs window to reveal a startling shot of one of the sisters wielding a dagger with clearly malicious intent, moonlight glinting off the blade.

Milton Krasner’s photography is exceptional here, and we should also throw in a word here for Dimitri Tiomkin’s music, which adds greatly to the atmosphere, exploring more interesting territory than the blaring guff that more commonly accompanied films of this era.

The lengthy tracking shot that opens the film, in which the camera prowls slowly through the study of the murder victim, highlighting various clues before eventually revealing the corpse itself, is fantastic too – a bravura opening to any murder mystery, and one of the only moments in which ‘The Dark Mirror’ really approaches anything resembling “noir”, incidentally.

Next up, we get both an even more concentrated dose of faux-psychoanalytical melodrama and another misfire from a legendary director, as we turn to Fritz Lang’s rather more ambitious Secret Beyond The Door (1947).

In my experience, Lang’s American films almost always make for rewarding viewing, irrespective of how they were received at the time, but sadly I feel we still need to chalk this one up as one of his few absolute disasters. In financial terms, the film’s catastrophic box office pretty much torpedoed Lang’s tempestuous filmmaking partnership with producer Walter Wanger and star Joan Bennett, just a year after they’d delivered such classics as ‘Scarlet Street’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’. And, in creative terms meanwhile, well… let’s get to that.

Essentially Lang’s contribution to the cycle of ‘Jane Eyre’-derived “woman-marries-a-cad” gothic potboilers that followed the success of Hitchcock and Selznick’s ‘Rebecca’ in 1945, ‘Secret Beyond The Door’ (scripted by Lang protégée Silvia Richards from a story by Rufus King) begins in provocative fashion when Celia (Bennett), a young bachelorette holidaying in Mexico, finds herself unexpectedly aroused by a knife fight she witnesses on the street, and, more specifically, by the eye contact she simultaneously makes with one Mark Lamphire (Michael Redgrave), a tall, dark stranger of aristocratic bearing and obvious wealth.

Before you know it, Bennett and Redgrave are hitched, but, as is the way with these things, our heroine’s new beau remains a man of mystery, refusing to discuss his background and inconveniently disappearing “on business” at the point at which (we may infer) the couple are about to consummate their relationship during their South of the border honeymoon. Things get far worse however when Celia returns, alone, to her husband’s East Coast ancestral pile, there to discover a stack of unsavoury surprises that would have had Daphne Du Maurier reaching for the smelling salts.

Not only does Mr Lamphire keep a resentful, black-clad sister (Anne Revere) mooning about the place, he also has a preternaturally mature, Village-of-the-Damned-esque son, born to his previously unmentioned first wife(!), who, Celia learns following a bare minimum of investigative snooping, died in mysterious circumstances on the premises some years back(?!). (1)

As if this weren’t enough make any sane woman to consider getting the hell out of Dodge, Celia’s husband also chooses the occasion of a big society party he is hosting to casually drop the big reveal vis-a-vis his rather unique hobby, which – get this – involves collecting murder rooms.

In other words, he has travelled the world purchasing the entire contents of rooms in which notorious crimes have taken place, and has arranged for them to be recreated in a wing of his own house, just because… well, I don’t know exactly. The script posits the idea that he is some kind of holistic architect with an interest in exploring how the resonance of certain rooms can affect the events within them, or some such hoo-hah he seems to have dreamed up to avoid the more obvious conclusion that he is simply out of his fucking mind - a suggestion that he airily dismisses when it is put to him in slightly more polite, cod-Freudian terms by a female party guest identified on the movie’s cast-list solely as “Intellectual Sub-Deb”.

In case you’re keeping score, Celia also overhears rumours at the party suggesting that her husband has squandered his fortune, run the family business into the ground and is now embroiled in insurmountable debt. And, did I mention that he also has a final, locked “murder room” that he will never, ever let anyone into? Can you guess what might be inside it?

As my own wife is often keen on yelling at the screen when we watch horror films together, now is very much the time for Celia to GO! GET OUT! LEAVE THIS PLACE, RIGHT NOW! But of course, in genre-mandated fashion, she fails to follow such advice because, well, you know – love, or something.

I confess, reading back through that plot synopsis, ‘Secret Beyond The Door’ sounds like an absolute hoot. With such a ludicrously OTT plot-line, heaps of gothic atmosphere and one of cinema’s great visionaries in the director’s chair, *surely* this thing must be ripe for rediscovery, regardless of how poorly it was received upon release...? Well, so you’d hope, but, in view of these obvious attractions, I fear the fact the film remains largely obscure speaks volumes.

Basically, ‘Secret…’ is hard work. Full of tepid, overwrought dialogue and repetitious, circular plotting, Richards’ screenplay attempts to graft garbled psycho-analytical “insight” onto the bones of a rote Victorian melodrama, but crucially fails to make its central characters or their errant behaviour either believable or sympathetic, resulting in a lugubrious trudge of a picture in which pages of script seem to disintegrate into a mushy, interchangeable swamp of blather.

I mean, I realise gothic romance is *supposed* to be leaden and suffocating to some degree, but, to paraphrase that guy in the pie shop scene in Smashing Time, there are limits, darling - limits.

Bennett and Redgrave do what they can with their roles, but humanising their characters proves impossible, and as a result these are “stay professional and wait for the cheque” performances for the most part. After ‘Secret Beyond The Door’ opened to an understandable mixture of bafflement and ridicule, certain gossip columnists seem to have taken pleasure in noting that Redgrave, who had the misfortune to select this film as his American debut after achieving star status in the UK, pretty much packed it in and took the first boat home straight after the production wrapped. (Seemingly taking a “once bitten, twice shy” approach, he only rarely accepted roles in American films thereafter.)(2)

Unable to harness the tightly-wound threads of inescapable, mechanized urban fate that powered his better films through to their conclusions, Lang also flounders, filling the movie – for some reason – with over-bearing floral imagery (which I suppose at least suits the musty potpourri of some of the scripting). More helpfully, he also really goes to town with all the stuff involving keyholes, nocturnal snooping, locked chambers, shadowed empty spaces and malevolent architecture, harking back to the more expressionistic elements of his early German films to deliver some extremely atmospheric sequences.

Indeed, there are isolated moments here when we could be lost in one of the circuitous human rat-traps stalked by Dr Mabuse and his victims, but, with no other aspects of the production apparently able to back up the director’s instinct for cinematic wizardry, these remain only moments - exhilarating intervals between leaden stretches of run-time that see us lost in a far less pleasurable manner, sinking again into the murk of the confused, unworkable script. Although Lang completists and Hollywood disaster specialists will no doubt want to give ‘Secret Beyond The Door’ a shot, I’m afraid I can’t report that it has improved much with age.

And, as far as ‘film noir’ is concerned meanwhile… well I’ve watched kitten videos on Youtube that have more claim to the term to be honest. Even if one were to use a wholly psychological definition of ‘noir’, I can’t really see ‘Secret..’s half-baked mixture of pop Freudianism and 19th century melodrama hitting the mark, and, as a voluntary member of the Genre Police, I can’t help but take a dim view of this sort of thing. I mean, if this one gets through the gates, I suppose that means you’ve also got to make room for its obvious precursor ‘Rebecca’, and if we let her in, where does it end? ‘Dragonwyck’? ‘The Good Earth’…? Hell, why not throw ‘Jamaica Inn’ in too, and we’ll have a right old rave up at the next Film Noir retrospective?

Far closer to the mark – on the surface of things, at least – is Force of Evil (1948). As well as boasting a suitably generic pulp fiction title, playwright and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky’s directorial debut brings us claustrophobic New York location shooting, some bracing gangland gun-play, a morally compromised, mob-affiliated lawyer living in fear of the secret telephone in his bottom drawer, and – crucially – a whole lot of stuff with cheroot-chewing guys in hats talking about “the numbers racket”. Now *this* is more like it!

As a committed Marxist intellectual and trade union activist however, Polonsky was certainly no Spillane, and his film – the only directorial assignment he completed before becoming one of the earliest victims of the HUAC blacklist - tilts at some far more ambitious windmills than your average gangster movie.

We’ve spoken before here [in my review of Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway] about critic Thom Anderson’s conception of film gris, a term he coined to refer a certain set of films produced on the outskirts of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1940s, exploiting a brief window in which left wing directors and writers were given the opportunity to produce work that reflected their ideological beliefs, before the black curtain of McCarthyism fell.

Reshaping the conventions of lower budget thrillers from the inside out, entries in the film gris canon presented viewers – and indeed studios – with a series of challenging, formally innovative films that often sought to undercut traditional Hollywood notions of individual exceptionalism, instead exploring wider ideas of societal responsibility and encouraging the audience to identify with a collective social grouping rather than a lone hero. ‘Thieves’ Highway’ provides a good example of this short-lived trend, but ‘Force of Evil’ can make a pretty good case for being the definitive one.

Extrapolated by Polonsky from a reportedly impenetrable anti-capitalist novel (‘Tucker’s People’ by Ira Wolfert, 1941), the film follows the increasingly desperate travails of one Joe Morse, played by perennial film gris leading man John Garfield. An ambitious young New York lawyer from working class roots, Morse is in the pocket of high-rolling gangster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), helping him mastermind a scheme that will see his organisation obtaining monopoly control over the city’s underground “numbers racket”, wiping out the competition in one fell swoop. Everything is set to go off without a hitch, but for the nagging guilt Joe feels about the plight of his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who runs a small numbers game in a down-at-heel part of town, and stubbornly refuses to sell out to the gangsters.

Although presenting an exploitative illegal gambling operation as a bulwark of grass roots community enterprise feels like a weird move on Polonsky’s part, you can probably guess the general direction of the story’s drift, as Joe Morse struggles to find a way to salvage his brother’s livelihood without blowing the whole takeover deal to the unexpectedly determined NYPD. Needless to say, the constrictions of the increasingly convoluted knots he finds himself tied up in provide the framework for some stone cold bits of noir greatness, including a least a few sequences that are liable to live long in the memory of even the most apolitical movie fan.

The contrast between the film’s towering Manhattan exteriors (exceptionally captured by DP George Barnes) and its cramped, utilitarian studio interiors (largely offices and places of work, rather than domestic settings) lends the film an oppressive, airless feel that persists throughout, effectively – if not exactly subtly – mirroring the fateful weight that the machinations of capitalist self-interest place upon the characters within it.

Though Barnes’ photography never fully commits to the kind of expressionism favoured by so much ‘classic’ noir, instead staying true to the story’s tone of grimy realism, the climactic scene in which the craven numbers bank accountant who snitched to the cops meets his bloody fate nonetheless achieves a near-operatic quality, as does the concluding sequence in which Garfield symbolically ‘descends to the underworld’ as he climbs down to the banks of the Hudson, there to search for his brother’s corpse.

The sequences set in Morse’s office meanwhile are genuinely nightmarish, as a grim ballet of telephones, locked drawers, handguns and light switches threatens to upset his house of cards at any moment, temporarily making the movie feel like an anxiety dream someone might experience after guzzling too much cheese from the buffet at a Film Noir festival.

Despite these strengths however – and despite the mighty critical reputation ‘Force of Evil’ has acquired over the years (a charge led by no less a figure than Martin Scorsese, who has firmly enshrined it as one of his key influences and all-time faves) – personally speaking, I couldn’t help but feel that the film never *quite* comes together the way it should, with its basic cogency perhaps collapsing to some extent under the weight of its own ambitions.

Although the background Polonsky’s script provides on the ubiquitous “numbers racket” is pretty enlightening for us non-U.S.-based crime fiction enthusiasts, the doggedly economic nature of the film’s plotting sometimes proves difficult to match up with its aspirations toward compelling human drama - a problem that is only exacerbated by the distinctly peculiar approach that Polonsky takes to the film’s dialogue.

Though he remains ostensibly within the realm of contemporary, street level vernacular here (there are none of the baroque excesses later exemplified by Clifford Odet’s script for ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’ (1954), for instance), the writer-director nonetheless has his cast communicate with each other via the means of rhythmic, repetitious and frequently rather obtuse passages of verbiage that scan more like blank verse than anything you’d expect to hear in a hard-boiled crime movie.

Creating an odd disjuncture with the studied, proletarian realism of the story and setting, this technique serves – perhaps deliberately? - to alienate us from any real identification with the characters, as climactic inter-character scenes begin to play out more like symbolic representations of some obscure philosophical point than as exchanges between actual human beings.

Garfield’s scenes with ostensible leading lady Beatrice Pearson (whom he first encounters working as a secretary in his brother’s numbers bank) suffer particularly badly in this regard; although Joe Morse is a very well-drawn character in his own right, the basis for his continued interaction with Pearson’s rather unconvincing stock ‘good girl’ seems entirely inexplicable, and the strange dialogue they are assigned only serves to confuse the issue, leaving our emotive response to their joint story arc seriously adrift. (Seriously, if someone can tell me what the scene in which Garfield picks Pearson up and forces her to sit on a mantelpiece whilst some passers-by emerge from the lift is all about, I’d be delighted.)

It seems depressingly ironic that a film which so bravely seeks to dramatise the damage that the capitalist system can inflict upon the souls of those caught up in it should sacrifice the humanity of its characters to some bits of business that feel like they could have emerged from an experimental one-act stage play. On this basis, I must confess that, on first exposure at least, I found ‘Force of Evil’ a film far easier to admire than it was to love. Perhaps repeat viewings might help to open it up for me, but… who has the time? I gotta make a living to keep buying all these blu-rays, y’know. [Head hits desk; drooling.]

And finally, we move forward seven years, to a film from the very opposite end of the noir spectrum from ‘Force of Evil’ – one that is perhaps less than wholly admirable in certain respects, but is oh so easy to love.

Mr. Brown: I think Lieutenant Diamond needs a drink. Got any liquor?
Fante: How about some paint thinner?
Mr. Brown: No, that'll kill him. Anything else?
Fante: Hair tonic, 40% alcohol.
Mr. Brown: Fine.

Welcome to the world of Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo – a film so goddamn hard-boiled it basically feels like being lamped in the jaw by a giant amalgam of Humphrey Bogart and Dashiell Hammett… presumably whilst you were lurking under a lamppost after midnight, chewing on a matchstick and waiting to give Elisha Cook Jr a hard time, or something.

By 1955 of course, film noir was well into what I suppose you might call its ‘decadent’ phase, with such self-conscious apotheoses of the style as Aldrich’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ and Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ lurking just around the corner, so it’s more than likely that Lewis and his collaborators were fully aware of the clichéd nature of the genre conventions they were exploiting here. Still though, ‘The Big Combo’ stands as such a perfect, eternal archetype of the no nonsense, low budget crime movie that it is difficult to cast too much post-modern shade across its achievements. Indeed, most contemporary viewers seem to have taken it on its own terms, with reviewers writing it off as a dated throwback to the gangster movies of preceding decades, differentiated from them only by its Production Code-baiting infusions of violence and perversity. So, exactly what the doctor ordered to liven up this rather lacklustre box set, in other words.

Before I get too carried away with hyperbole however, I should make probably make clear that, unlike the other films in this set, my own personal history with ‘The Big Combo’ goes back a long way. All the way back to when I was seventeen years old in fact, and taking a module on Film Noir whilst studying for my A-Level in Film Studies.

Alongside the obligatory classics of the genre, our tutor was canny enough to screen her own copy of ‘The Big Combo’ (recorded, I believe, from a ‘Moviedrome’ TV broadcast) for the class, and I am eternally grateful to her for that because, more so than ‘Mildred Pierce’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ and so on, it was the one that made by far the biggest impression upon me. In fact I’m go so far as to say that it provided me with perhaps my first real exposure to the joys of the vintage pulp crime aesthetic in film and literature, and, if you want to click on the crime tag at the bottom of this post, you’ll appreciate the effect that ended up having on me, for better or for worse.

Returning to ‘The Big Combo’ after many years via Arrow’s blu-ray, I’ve been thrilled to discover that it hasn’t lost its lustre in the slightest. If anything in fact, I love it even more. Of course, with so much more movie-watching experience under my belt, I can now identify the film’s numerous shortcomings all too clearly; the occasional absurdities of the plotting, the crippling time and budgetary constraints under which production took place, the clumsy use of insert shots to try to break up Lewis’s reliance on one scene / one take master shots, and so on.

All of these issues make the film an easy one to tear apart from a purely technical POV, but I would nonetheless argue that such deficiencies don’t detract from its overall impact in the slightest, any more than wonky type-setting and poorly printed artwork affect the impact of a good pulp paperback.

Fittingly, the film’s central plot line is pretty boilerplate stuff, with obsessive cop-on-the-edge Lieutenant Leo Diamond (Cornel Wilde) working round to bring down shark-like criminal kingpin Mr Brown (we never learn his first name), played with scene-stealing gusto by Richard Conte. Essentially reprising his capricious hooligan role from Siodmak’s excellent ‘Cry of the City’ (1948), but adding an extra decade or two’s criminal mastery to the equation, Conte amps up his performance here to wild, comic-book proportions, creating one of the most delightfully OTT villains the noir canon has to offer.

First introduced as he bawls out a failing boxing protégée backstage at the ring (“Hate! Hate is the word, Benny! Hate the man that tries to beat you. Kill 'em, Benny! Kill 'em!”), Mr Brown’s whip-snap dialogue delivery, unpredictable mood swings and ‘might is right’ philosophical diatribes serve to dominate the movie just as surely as he dominates his underlings and associates (“first is first – second is nothing!” serves as his preferred catch phrase).

Mr Brown seems to operate some sort of hypnotic sexual control over leading lady Jean Wallace, and keeps a hidden vault full of cash and machine guns in her apartment(!). He kills and tortures without hesitation, dines alone in his own hotel, and chews his lobster with vengeful intensity. He is awesome, basically.

Naturally, Mr Brown gets to chew his way through much of the best dialogue in Philip Yordan’s script, wherein characters snarl their way through blunt, Spillane-style verbiage that may seem clumsy and artless compared to more high-brow, literate noirs, but nonetheless remains richly quotable, full of beautiful chunks of ramshackle pulp poetry.

(The film’s quotes page on IMDB will give you a general idea of what to expect, but misses out on one of my favourite bits, when Diamond tries to bully Brown’s ex-wife into testifying against him by relating the way he accidentally had a woman gunned down in Diamond’s apartment; “…they took eleven bullets from her body, and the following morning Miss Lowell had breakfast with him – he ordered bacon and two eggs. Tell her Susan, how he ate his bacon and eggs while he read the papers, and saw the body of this girl lying in the morgue!”)(3)

As I’ve stated before in these pages, I’m often a little distrustful of the kind of “A picture” noirs that placed their literary/artistic credentials front and centre. As with ‘Force of Evil’ discussed above, such an approach can easily lead to films becoming top heavy with signage and symbolism, knocking their function of fast-moving crime stories off-balance. As such, I personally tend to prefer the kind of less showy, second or third tier noirs that ostensibly keep it simple whilst letting weird ambiguities and psychological complexities creep in around the edges – and of course ‘The Big Combo’ is a case in point in this regard.

Though the script is doggedly straight-forward, crudely melodramatic and frequently preposterous, that doesn’t mean it’s stupid. As many critics have noted, there is more to the drama of ‘The Big Combo’ than initially meets the eye, as the plotting becomes increasingly motivated by a streak of weird, wilful perversity that consumes every character within it.

A sweaty, self-righteous and generally dislikeable protagonist, Wilde’s Lt. Diamond can’t hold a candle to the charisma of Mr Brown – indeed, his campaign against the latter seems to be motivated at least partly by pure jealousy, and the purity of his intentions is placed in doubt from the outset. As soon as he is introduced, Diamond’s superior officer accuses him of pursuing the case against Brown because he is “in love” with Brown’s mistress Susan Lowell, an accusation he fails to deny, but it later transpires that he has never even met her at this point.

As he proceeds to mercilessly harangue Lowell in her hospital bed following a suicide attempt, and to harass her with sanctimonious life advice at every opportunity thereafter, Diamond seems closer to a persistent stalker than a crusading cop, whilst Lowell herself, caught between the vampiric attentions of two hot-headed, chauvinistic bullies, spends most of the movie lost in a precarious fug of suicidal depression – an effect unsettlingly conveyed by Jean Wallace’s dazed, affectless performance.

As for Mr Brown’s “big combo” itself meanwhile, budgetary constraints may have limited it to only three guys, but boy, what a crew they are. For a movie of this vintage, the frankness with which the homosexual relationship between Brown’s goons/triggermen Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) is portrayed is little short of breath-taking, not least in the way the film refuses to assign any conventional signifiers of “camp” to their characters, instead placing their relationship solely within a relentlessly masculine framework of sadism and physical intimidation.

A fascinating addition to the film, Fante and Mingo remind me strongly of the characters played by Gig Young and Helmut Dantine in Peckinpah’s ‘Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’ two decades later, but happily they are thankfully given a lot more screen-time here. In fact, the fleeting moments of tenderness they share inbetween acts of hair-raising violence represent perhaps the only expressions of a healthy, reciprocal love in the entire movie, even as Van Cleef’s glowering, hawk-like visage looking more menacing than ever as it emerges from the shadows of John Alton’s exceptional spot-lighting.

Even more compelling in some ways however is their supposed overseer Joe McClure, played by Brian Donlevy. Donlevy appears here mere months before he found himself catastrophically miscast in the first of Hammer’s Quatermass movies, but ‘The Big Combo’ proves that the big oaf was actually still capable of delivering an effective performance, irrespective of seven decades of stick he has subsequently received from British science fiction fans.

A hulking, huffing case study in brutish frustration and ineffectual low cunning, McClure, like Fante and Mingo, is a figure who refuses to fall easily into any pre-existing genre cliché. More than just the ready-made fall guy he could have been, McClure is an ugly spiked mass of conflicting negative emotions, and the faltering half smile he gives to Brown before he is (inevitably) gunned down prior to the film’s conclusion is, for me, the most haunting moment in any of the films on this box set.

As if this cast of misfits wasn’t already enough to keep us busy, ‘The Big Combo’ also finds room to assign some choice supporting roles to a bunch of great character actors (Jay Adler, John Hoyt, Ted de Corsica), but despite all this, most critics and fans over the years have been in agreement that the movie’s MVP can actually be found behind the camera, in the shape of the aforementioned John Alton.

Perhaps the pre-eminent example of a ‘cult’ cinematographer, Alton’s distinctive visual style significantly enhanced all of the numerous low budget noirs he worked on (cf: ‘Raw Deal’, ‘T-Men’, ‘Border Incident’), but ‘The Big Combo’, the last film in this vein he worked on, is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Shot almost entirely on cramped studio sets, ‘..Combo’ lacks the strong geographic identity of most urban crime stories (though the action ostensibly takes place in Los Angeles, you’ll have to work hard to actually find evidence of this), but Alton nonetheless uses the minimal means at his disposal to conjure a world of incredible, near-fantastical atmospherics. This being a horror-centric blog, I hope I can state that Alton’s work here makes ‘The Big Combo’ sometimes feel like a noir made by Mario Bava, and readers will appreciate the extent of the compliment.

Not only can other low budget filmmakers take inspiration from the way in which Alton creates a concert hall, the exterior of a boxing arena and an airport out of absolutely nothing and does so convincingly enough to sell the illusion to all but the most critical viewers, but the stark, hyper-real artistry of his light and shade – strong, carefully-directed light sources picking out details amid deep pools of black and swathes of studio fog – is frequently magnificent.

My favourite bit in this regard might possibly be the scene supposedly shot in the side alley of a burlesque club where Wilde’s on-off girlfriend (splendidly played by Helene Stanton, incidentally) works. It’s just… well, wow, basically. So richly evocative of… something; like the cover of a ‘50s Jim Thompson paperback come to life. (And yes, whilst he’s been stalker-ishly pursuing a suicidal gangster’s moll, Lt Diamond also has an on-off stripper girlfriend whom he treats like dirt – our moral high ground-hogging hero, ladies and gents.)

Joseph Lewis’s potential status as an auteur has long been a contentious topic amongst cinephiles, and whilst I’m not going to throw my hat into the ring here, I think we can at least say for certain that the handful of noteworthy films he made amid a career of less distinguished journeyman work (alongside ‘The Big Combo’, we can definitely add ‘Gun Crazy’ (1950) and ‘Terror in a Texas Town’ (1958) to the former category) share a sense of raw energy and transcendent pulp imagery that can’t simply have been the result of good luck and talented collaborators.

All three of these films attack the tropes of their genres with an exultant, gutsy determination that overcomes their (often considerable) technical shortcomings, zeroing in on the core of action, suspense and ragged emotional turmoil that makes such stories work, and imbuing them with a spirit of violent sensationalism that makes them feel closer to 70s/80s “cult movies” than studio-era “classics” – an approach that continues to endear Lewis’s films to viewers today, even whilst the work of most of his contemporaries in the Hollywood b-movie trenches has faded into oblivion.

Combine this feel with Alton’s sublime, quintessentially noir photography and a generous handful of bug-eyed, vein-popping performances and you’ve got a movie that may not be one of the best crime movies made in Hollywood by any stretch of the imagination, but – if your tastes are anything like mine – it stands a pretty high chance of becoming one of your favourite ones.

If you’ve seen ‘The Big Combo’, you’ll know what’s what, but if you haven’t – now is as good a time as any to embrace this twisted, two-dimensional sideshow of sadism, fear and despair, and feel the love.


(1) Interestingly, Anne Revere seems to have played more or less the same role in the same year’s equally ‘Rebecca’-inspired ‘Dragonwyck’, starring Vincent Price in the all-important ‘cad’ role. Did she make a specialty of resentful, black-clad spinsters?

(2) Actually, I believe ‘Secret..’ was technically Redgrave’s second Hollywood appearance, following Eugene O'Neill’s wonderfully titled ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’ for RKO, also in 1947. He certainly did stay away for a long time though – by my calculations, his next U.S. studio-backed picture was, appropriately enough, ‘The Quiet American’ in 1958, and even that was filmed in Vietnam and Italy.

(3) Yordan’s authorship of the script for ‘The Big Combo’ has often been disputed, on the basis that he frequently lent his name to work by black-listed writers, but “noirchaeologist” Eddie Muller, in his commentary track for the Arrow disc, states that he thinks it likely Yordan DID actually write most of it, so who am I to argue?


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

The Big Combo, eh? Might be one to look into. I used to watch a fair few Noir back in the 90s when Channel Four would show them during the day, but not really seen at for a long time. I think I went firmly down the Brit Noir road and ended up there as my preference.

Which makes me think..... Loseys “The Criminal” - noir or not noir?

Ben said...

Thanks for your comment Maurice!

Ah yes, so many great Brit-Noirs... they've dropped off my menu for a while, but I should definitely pick up on those again. Need more Stanley Baker in my life.

'The Criminal' might be a good place to start actually... I was on a big Joseph Losey kick when I first started this blog back in 2009-10ish, but I never got to see that one. I will have to make an effort to track it down! (Generally speaking, I think Losey's films are united by the fact they're usually too eccentric to easily fit into any single genre, but who knows...)

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Losey certainly darts about the place, as far as his work from film to film is concerned. I’ve liked just about all of the 6-7 I’ve seen.

The Criminal - keep an eye on the Talking Pictures TV listings. They seem to show it about once a week on there, along with tonnes of other Brit Noir. I think I just find it more relatable to watch a film set in somewhere like Lambeth and having Richard Todd or whoever searching for a nicked car.

I suppose that one with Richard Widmark filmed in London is the happy medium ground - name eludes me right now......Night and The City, I think?

Ben said...

Yes, 'Night and the City'! One of my absolute favourite noirs - incredible film; Jules Dassin's masterpiece, I reckon. The plot-line with Herbert Lom as the embittered son of a Grec-Roman wrestler is fantastic.

As I recall though, it feels much more like an American film than a British one - the kind of thing where you get halfway through and think "hang on, this is supposed to be LONDON?" -- you'd think the accents would be a giveaway, but I don't really recall how that plays out - really one I need to watch again.

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Funnily enough, my cycle route takes me past the barges down on Chelsea Embankment where I think the finale was filmed. Will have to check.

I know the barges more for Goodbye Gemini, but I’m certain it’s those ones judging by the position of the bridges in the background.

Nerd/10 for that - a 9, I think!