Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Big Combo (1955) at the Million Dollar Theater

Tonight UCLA sponsored a most enjoyable double bill of restored film noir titles at the historic Million Dollar Theater in Downtown Los Angeles.

My visit to this grand old theater came just days after my first visit to another theater dating from the early days of Hollywood, the El Capitan. Sid Grauman opened the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway and Third in 1918. The interior is incredibly ornate; one can only imagine what the theater looked like in its heyday. Although the seats were quite old, they were comfortable enough, and UCLA's 35-millimeter prints looked great on the big screen. If only the theater could be fully restored to the same level of beauty as the El Capitan!

The first film of the evening was THE BIG COMBO (1955) starring Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte. Wilde plays Lt. Leonard Diamond, who is obsessed with bringing down mob boss Mr. Brown (Conte), despite pressure from the brass about the cost of the investigation.

Diamond also seems more than a little obsessive about Mr. Brown's girl, Susan (Jean Wallace). Susan's a society girl who wants to leave Mr. Brown -- she even tries to exit via some pills -- while at the same time she seems powerless to resist him.

The film is quite edgy for the mid-'50s, including a series of memorably staged murders and the unusual relationship between Conte's henchmen, played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman. The film has a constant capacity to surprise, and it also provides several examples of the proverbial less being more; there's no gore, yet some of the sequences -- especially one played in complete silence -- are unforgettable.

Likewise, there's a steamy scene between Conte and Wallace which simultaneously shows nothing yet is so surprising it causes the viewer's jaw to drop. According to the Film Noir Foundation's Alan K. Rode, whose comments opened the evening, director Joseph H. Lewis managed to convince the censors that what they were seeing was all in their minds, or something along those lines, even though any adult would read the scene the same way. Rumor has it that Wilde, who was an uncredited associate producer and married to Wallace at the time, was incandescent with rage over his wife appearing in this sequence. Nonetheless, it remained in the film.

Initially I wasn't that enthused about the film; I've never been a fan of Wilde's, and as the viewer is dropped smack into the middle of highly dramatic conflicts, the movie at first seemed somewhat cartoonish or exaggerated. This wasn't helped by dialogue which at times was brilliant but at other moments was pretty awful.

And yet, as the film went on, I found myself falling under its spell, thanks to a combination of unforgettably staged set pieces and the stunning black and white cinematography of John Alton. For anyone who wants to know what film noir looks like, this film is Exhibit A. What at first had appeared cartoonish gradually seemed to morph into high style, taking the viewer on something of a noir thrill ride.

I always find Richard Conte enjoyable, whether he's playing the hero or the villain. I'd never seen Jean Wallace before; paralleling the film, her performance initially seemed too vacant or stylized, yet reflecting back on her role, she was noir perfection as a troubled woman who might be a femme fatale...or might be a heroine.

Brian Donlevy is memorable as Conte's bitter lieutenant, whose hearing aid figures significantly in multiple scenes. Helen Walker, in her last feature film role, is among the film's pleasures as a mysterious woman from Mr. Brown's past. This film was just half a dozen years after Walker costarred with Donlevy in IMPACT (1949), but she seems to have aged considerably from her more glamorous past; the change in her appearance plays into the character's history and lends a poignance to her performance. Helene Stanton, who seems to be channeling Marie Windsor with a dash of Carolyn Jones, is excellent as a burlesque dancer who is Wilde's sort-of girlfriend.

The cast also includes Robert Middleton, Ted de Corsia, John Hoyt, and Steve Mitchell. The script of this 84-minute film was by Philip Yordan, and the memorably jazzy score was composed by David Raksin. Raksin's music combines with the atmospheric opening credits for a bit of film noir bliss.

THE BIG COMBO was released on VHS and DVD. It can be rented for streaming via Amazon Instant Video and is available on disc or via streaming from Netflix.

This film can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

For more thoughts on this movie, visit Dave's review at Goodfella's Movie Blog, which describes THE BIG COMBO "a truly great film."

The second half of the double bill: Dick Powell in PITFALL (1948).

July 2013 Update: Olive Films will release a UCLA restoration of THE BIG COMBO on DVD and Blu-ray on September 24, 2013.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Sounds fascinating. Great write-up. I've never seen this movie. Thanks for taking us inside the theater. So great that we still have some of these grand old houses left.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much, Jacqueline! I think you'd like this film. Wouldn't it be great if there were a way for a bunch of us classic film bloggers to all see a movie together? :)

Best wishes,

12:45 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"Wouldn't it be great if there were a way for a bunch of us classic film bloggers to all see a movie together?"

I'd love that. We need to have a mini-convention some day.

4:43 AM  

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