The Big Combo (1955) Classic Movie Review 78

The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo (1955)

I'm trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it's hard to stop.

Welcome to today’s show, my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. You can also go to to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to iTunes and give me a review.

With today’ film were are going to jump heavily into Film Noir. Today’s movie is The Big Combo (1955) and it has a lot of Noir power and actors.


Many of the actors we have already covered so I will jump right in with them.

Jay Adler played the role of Detective Sam Hill assistant to Lt. Diamond. We covered Adler in Episode 38 – 99 River Street (1953).

Michael Mark had a very small role as Fred the hotel clerk. Mark was covered in Episode 46 – The Wasp Woman (1959);

Lee Van Cleef played the role of small time gangster Fante. Van Cleef was covered in Episode 66 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

John Hoyt played Nils Dreyer, former boat captain, and antique store owner. Hoyt was covered in Episode 35 – Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Whit Bissell is in the credits but his scenes were cut.

Cornel Wilde played the lead role of Police Lt. Leonard Diamond. Wilde was born in Hungary in 1912. In 1920, the family moved to New York City. He began working the theater. Wilde was on the US Olympic fencing team but quit before the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Wilde got a role on Broadway and served as the fencing choreographer in Laurence Olivier’s 1940 Broadway Romeo and Juliet. From this role, he was taken to Hollywood where he had a few small roles before undertaking an Oscar-nominated role in A Song to Remember (1945) as Fredrick Chopin. All through the 1940s, he played the role of swashbucklers in movies like Forever Amber (1947). Other important movies include The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The Big Combo (1955), and Storm Fear (1955). One of his greatest roles was in The Naked Prey (1965), where he produced, starred, and directed. We should never forget TV movie Gargoyles (1972). He died in 1989 at the age of 77.

The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo (1955)

Brian Donlevy played Joe McClure, the former boss that had lost command. What a life. Donlevy lied and joined the Army when he was 14. He ended up fighting in Mexico under Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing fighting against Pancho Villa in Mexico. Donlevy later served as a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille, during World War I. He spent two years at the Naval Academy before giving up the military life for acting.

Donlevy had many stage roles before heading to Hollywood to work in silent films. His first film was A Man of Quality (1926). His first talkie was Gentlemen of the Press (1929). Donlevy had a 5-6 year dry spell before returning to film Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935), Another Face (1935), and Barbary Coast (1935). He started getting roles as the tough guy. He made a total of 89 films. Some of his better-known roles are the sadistic sergeant in Beau Geste (1939), The Great McGinty (1940), Wake Island (1942), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), Kiss of Death (1947), Dangerous Assignment (1952), and The Big Combo (1955). He died in 1972.

Jean Wallace played the role of Susan Lowell, the former good girl now under the control of an evil mobster. Wallace was a teen model that got caught in a lie about her age after appearing in Ziegfeld Girl (1941). She got a six-month contract with Paramount where she was in Louisiana Purchase (1941). Wallace then signed a five-year contract with 20th Century Fox but her career slumped after she refused Kiss of Death (1947).

The private part of her life sounds like a screenplay. In 1941, she took up with Joan Crawford’s ex, Franchot Tone, Tone was twice her age. Wallace and Tone had a seven-year marriage where Wallace tried to kill herself twice. The first was in 1946 by pills and the second was in 1949 by stabbing herself in the stomach. In the divorce, she lost custody of her two children and was accused of being in a relationship with a gangster. She married a soldier in 1950 but it was annulled after 5 months.

In 1951, Wallace married actor and director Cornel Wilde. Wilde began to manage her career. She acted opposite Wilde in B-movies with The Big Combo (1955) considered to be the best. Other movies in this run include Maracaibo (1958), where Wallace was an ice-cold journalist, in a love triangle with Wilde as a Red Adair type, Star of India (1954), Beach Red (1967), Sword of Lancelot (1963), and Wilde’s No Blade of Grass (1970), in which a family escapes from a post-apocalyptic world, much like The Omega Man (1971) or I Am Legend (2007). Wallace divorced Wilde in 1980 and afterward she lived with a large number of pets. She died in 1990.

Robert Middleton played the role of Police Capt. Peterson, the boss of Lt. Diamond. Middleton was a rather large, beetle-browed actor who played vicious villains. Middleton attended the University of Cincinnati and the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He was active in radio because of his rich voice.

In the 1950s he moved to Broadway and then eventually to film. His evil image came from his appearance in The Desperate Hours (1955) as a killer, The Court Jester (1955) as a foreboding knight intent on killing Danny Kaye in the famous “pellet with the poison” bit, in Friendly Persuasion (1956), Love Me Tender (1956), and as a sinister politician in The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977). In between, he appeared in a variety of roles. Middleton died of heart failure at the age of 66.

The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo (1955)

Richard Conte played Mr. Brown, a sinister driven gangster. Conte was born in New Jersey in 1910. One of the jobs he had was a singing waiter in Connecticut. This lead to stage work in 1935 after he was spotted by Elia Kazan and John Garfield. After studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse Conte got a job on Broadway in 1939. His first film was in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939). Conte became a big star during World War II when many male actors were away in the military.

During the war, Conte appeared in films like Guadalcanal Diary (1943), The Purple Heart (1944), and A Walk in the Sun (1945). Following the war, Conte became a mainstay in film noir. One of the best was Call Northside 777 (1948) where Jimmy Stewart help Conte’s character get exonerated for a crime. This was followed by Thieves’ Highway (1949), The Blue Gardenia (1953), Highway Dragnet (1954), and The Big Combo (1955). Conte was amazing as Don Barzini, in The Godfather (1972). Conte died of a heart attack in 1975, at the age of 65.

Helen Walker played the role of Alicia Brown. I will wait to talk about her role. Walker started working in film with Lucky Jordan (1942), starring Alan Ladd. She was successful with The Man in Half Moon Street (1945), Brewster’s Millions (1945), and spoof Murder, He Says (1945), starring Fred MacMurray. She was selected for Heaven Only Knows (1947) but on New Year’s Eve 1946 she picked up three hitchhiking World War II veterans. Later she wrecked killing one and injuring herself and the other two. At the trial, she was accused of drunk driving and speeding. Because of the bad press, she lost the role. Walker was found not guilty but the push back was such she had to switch to playing more villainous characters. Roles during this period included Nightmare Alley (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and Impact (1949). Still suffering stigma from the accident she was lucky to get the role in The Big Combo (1955) before her film career ended. Her last television show was in 1960. In 1968 Walker died of cancer. She was 47.

Earl Holliman played the role of a small-time hood Mingo. Holliman was born in Louisiana in 1928. He spent some time in the Navy before going to UCLA and finally ending up at the Pasadena Playhouse. Holliman got his first role in Scared Stiff (1953) with Martin and Lewis. This led to much better films such as Broken Lance (1954) with Spencer Tracy, Forbidden Planet (1956), The Rainmaker (1956) with Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn, Giant (1956) with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), with Lancaster, Visit to a Small Planet (1960), Summer and Smoke (1961), and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) with John Wayne.

In the 1960s his film roles waned but he had a good run on television. This includes 4 years working as Angie Dickinson partner in “Police Woman” 1974-1978. Holliman is still alive.

Ted de Corsia played the role of Ralph Bettini, a missing gangster. De Corsia often played the villain. His debut role was as the killer in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). His large size and gravelly voice tended to push him towards roles as outlaws and criminals. One of his best-known roles was as a gangster who turns state’s evidence in The Enforcer (1951) with Humphrey Bogart.

The film begins with a swing jazz intro over a bustling city. With strange angles, strange lighting, and smoke, a beautiful blond runs out of a boxing match. She is run down by two men in suits who call her Ms. Lowell (Jean Wallace) and say Mr. Brown will be mad. Mr. Brown’s employees are Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman). As they get ready to leave Detective Sam Hill (Jay Adler) is watching from a safe distance.

Back at the 93rd precinct Police Capt. Peterson (Robert Middleton) rushes into the office of Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Peterson tells Diamond that he has spent $18,600 investigating Mr. Brown and it has to stop. Diamond tells Peterson that he can’t stop the biggest gambling ring in the country with his resources. Peterson accuses Diamond of perusing his vendetta because he is in love with Ms. Lowell.

The scene switches back to Ms. Susan Lowell eating Fante and Mingo and looking very unhappy. She sees her old friend Mr. Audubon (Roy Gordon). Mingo says that when Brown is done with Susan he will kill her himself. Susan dances with Mr. Audubon, says she has taken pills and collapse. Detective Sam Hill picks up the purse she left on the floor.

Back at the boxing arena Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) is talking to a fighter that has just lost. In the room is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) the former gang leader the Mr. Brown took power from. Brown says McClure doesn’t have enough hate in him to be a winner.

Sam brings the purse back to Diamond and he rushes to General Hospital where she is under guard. McClure and Brown talk to Diamond and demand that Susan is released to a private hospital. As they take Susan away she says Alicia over and over. Brown makes all his treats through McClure.

Diamond goes to Susan’s bed and questions her. Diamond believes Alicia may be the name of Mr. Brown’s wife. Sam comes in and tells them that Brown has a writ of habeas corpus, Latin for deliver the body, for Susan. Diamond orders Sam to pick up all of Brown’s men including Brown himself. They drag all of the gangsters in on trumped up charges. Diamond keeps asking about Alicia.

Diamond has Brown take a lie detector test and when they say spaghetti he says the name, Bettini. He reacts to the word Alicia and Brown says it was a horse. Brown demands to be booked or released and they let him go. Capt. Peterson comes in and chews Diamond out for 96 false arrests. He says the Brown case is closed. Diamond and Sam have a conversation about Bettini (Ted De Corsia), one of the hoods that disappeared around the time Brown took over.

Diamond heads to a nightclub across town where his beautiful girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton) works. She is mad because he hasn’t been around in a while. But she warms up when he starts to leave. They go back to his place. Rita can see that Diamond is obsessed with another woman and she leaves.

Susan is back at Mr. Brown’s place after her time in the hospital. Brown is mean to her and she wants to leave.

Diamond gets a message to go see Rita and when he gets there she tells him the gangsters have put a price on his head. When he leaves he is jumped by Fante and Mingo. Mingo gets shot in the hand. They take him back to a warehouse and McClure is there. McClure has to pay off the thugs so he can question Diamond. While he is beating the cop Brown walks in and takes over. They use McClure’s hearing aid and radio to torture Diamond. They force Diamond to drink hair tonic so he will be drunk. They then deliver him to Peterson’s door. After the Captain learns the tale he gets on board with the case against Brown. Peterson says Bettini when straight when Brown took over the gang.

Peterson tells Diamond where Bettini leaves and he goes there. Bettini thinks Diamond is a gangster sent to kill him. Diamond asks about Alicia and Bettini says she was Brown’s wife who became a drunk. Brown got rid of her on the former boss’s boat off of Portugal and the anchor of the boat was missing. Diamond takes Bettini in for protection and he reveals that the captain of the boat was Nils Dreyer and he was paid off and owns an antique store.

Diamond goes to Dreyer’s store and talks to Dreyer about the anchor purchase. Diamond says Brown will kill him if he thinks he talked. After Diamond leaves, Dreyer is shot in the alley by an unseen person. Brown had told Fante, Mingo, and McClure to pick Dreyer up alive. When he finds out that McClure had the gun he sends the other two away. Brown takes McClure’s gun and sends him upstairs.

Diamond and Peterson find a negative in Dreyer safety deposit box and figure the answer is at the shop. When Diamond get their Brown is waiting. He has burned the logbook for the murder yacht.

Susan goes to a piano concert and Diamond joins her there and asks her to leave Brown. He gives her a photograph of Brown’s wife Alicia. Susan goes home where Brown is counting money. He has a secret room full of money and machine guns. Susan tells Brown that Diamond says he’s in love with her. Brown tells Susan that his wife is alive living in Sicily in the former boss’s house. Brown says she was a drunken flirt that humiliated him and then moved in with the former boss.

Rita goes to wait at Diamond’s house. Fante and Mingo get the order to kill Diamond. They go to his apartment and accidently murder Rita. Diamond is ready to kill. He throws Sam to the ground when he tries to stop him.

Susan comes by the police station the next morning to see Diamond. She says she knows who did it and she has left Brown. Susan tells Diamond that Alicia is alive. When he sees the photography he notices it has snow on the ground. Diamond reveals to Peterson that Brown killed his old boss Grazzi, instead of Alicia. They use the highway number in the photograph to find the upstate sanatorium where Alicia is living. McClure follows them up. Diamond tells the sick woman that he knows she says the murder.

McClure goes to Fante and Mingo and tells them that the police have Alicia and Brown is finished. He asks the pair to kill Brown. Brown and McClure head to the airport where the murder is to take place. Fante and Mingo come out and McClure talks crap. The two thugs point the guns at McClure. He begs for his life and Brown tells him he won’t hear the bullets. He rips his hearing aid out and the thugs riddle McClure with holes in total silence.

Diamond finishes interviewing Alicia Brown. They bring is Susan for an awkward meeting between the two ladies. Susan breaks down and Alicia agrees to talk about the murder. Brown and a lawyer come in with a writ of habeas corpus for Alicia. It drives her insane.

When they find McClure’s body Diamond orders them to pick up Fante and Mingo. Fante and Mingo are hiding in an old prohibition warehouse. Brown stops by and gives them food and a cigar box of money. He leaves and when they open the box it explodes. A waiter tells Brown that Mingo is still alive.

Sam is taking Susan up to the vault when the door opens and Brown shoots Sam down and takes Susan. Mingo tells who was responsible for the murders and the bombing. When he sees Fante dead he gives them Brown’s name. Sam survives the shooting and Alicia tell Diamond about Brown’s get plan.

Brown is at the airport where McClure was murdered with Susan. A car pulls in and Brown is trapped against the back wall like a rat. Diamond orders Brown out as he slowly walks through the fog. Susan uses the search light on the car to light Brown who runs back and forth. When Brown is out of bullets, Diamond grabs him. Brown says to kill him because he won’t go to jail. Two cops come in and take him away as he continues to rant.

Diamond and Susan are silhouetted against the fog as they walk away side by side ala Rick and Louie.

World-Famous Short Summary – Boy loses girl and gets another

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Beware the moors

The Big Combo (1955)

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