The Big Combo is a moody, slightly offbeat noir. Its basic story is unremarkable and, in fact, superficially similar to Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, which had come out two years earlier. But the dark undercurrents of The Big Heat are front-and-center in The Big Combo, for better and for worse: by foregrounding the unsettling psychology of its hero, and by giving him a story where the detection has the slipperiness of dream interpretation, the film foregoes some lingering effect but does achieve its own distinct, jagged outline.
Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is a police officer obsessed with taking down Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the “treasurer” of an organized crime network. His fixation on Brown coincides with, and is driven by, his fixation on “Brown’s girl,” the lonely and desperate Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace). If he loves her, as at his sometimes-girlfriend believes he does, it’s not a love that leads him to be especially kind. One of their major interactions is him interrogating her while she’s still woozy from having attempted suicide–this is how he gets the name “Alicia” out of her. Brown was writing it with his finger on fogged-up glass. Is Alicia another mistress? Was she his wife? Is she dead? Alive? In Italy? Is he covering up his guilt or his humiliation? Diamond chases down this ghost-like figure until he hits flesh-and-blood answers, and yet … the answers are strangely unsatisfying. Actually, almost everything is strangely unsatisfying. The story alludes to extremes, and the characters want clarity, but everything keeps winding up in a kind of lukewarm fog.
Diamond, appropriately for his name as well as his role, is the one who keeps insisting on rock-hard certainty and polished clarity. He’s outraged, just outraged, by Brown–and when we see Brown as a kind of trap Susan can’t escape, that makes sense. But Diamond’s official argument is that the city needs to continue funneling money to him to take down Brown because Brown issues the funds for a casino outside city limits, one that doesn’t blink at serving alcohol to minors, and that there were teenagers who lost a lot of money there, got drunk, and decided to recoup their losses by robbing a convenience store, and people ended up dead. Brown does have some moral responsibility in that chain of events, sure. But it’s not particularly direct, and it doesn’t feel especially sinister. You’re raging against capitalism, really, Diamond, with Brown as the nearest available representative. And this pattern continues for quite a while, with Diamond even saying that he thinks Brown doesn’t kill people, he buys them. If Brown is meant to be an insidious, soul-sapping evil–if he is, effectively, meant to be a kind of embodied market force, operating without restraint–then the effect is weakened when he does start dropping bodies right and left. He’s not a big enough threat until suddenly he’s an outsize one, and that makes his reality feel a little wobbly, like his existence is as tenuous as the mysterious Alicia’s.
But that’s not a problem unique to Brown, really. The whole film is full of people whose identities and roles seem unusually precarious. Dead men are presumed to be alive. Someone’s sanity fractures under the weight of witnessing a murder. Trustworthy, loyal mooks become an obvious trail of dead bodies, something that seems far riskier than just getting them out of town. The wrong person, Polonius-like, is killed through a door.
Nothing is stable, but Diamond persists in believing that it is. He’s confident in his worldview even to the point of naïveté, as when he asks Susan why she doesn’t just leave Brown. All his noir impulses are under the surface, mainly showing through his sexual obsession with Susan, and they drive him without controlling him: Diamond never quite fails his own standards. But he’s hard to like, and somehow his innocence winds up feeling cruel–as Roger Ebert pointed out with the hero of The Big Heat, he lives out his principles at the cost of other people’s lives and other people’s sins. At the end of the film, he arrests Brown, taking distinct pleasure in bringing Brown in for a lifetime of imprisonment when he knows Brown would rather die, and that’s a victory he achieved because, in the fog, he had Susan Lowell, who could shine a lamp through the clouds and darkness to blind Brown and spotlight him for Diamond.
But then, in the beautifully shot and iconic final moments, Brown is gone, and Diamond and Susan are left in the fog and the night, and Diamond has no quest and no clarity. And it’s still and quiet, and you can almost feel it: the moment in which Diamond realizes the world he’s been living in this entire time.
The Big Combo is available on the Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy.