‘First Is First and Second Is Nobody’: A Must-See Movie Comes to TV. Upon Its Initial Release The New York Times Called It ‘Shrill and Clumsy.’ My Guess Is That The Times Was Put Off by the Film’s Sexuality and Violence

Oct 18, 2011

One of my favorite channels on TV, hands down, is TCM—Turner Classic Movies. I’ve been in love with the movies since I was a little boy, and so, for me, watching TCM is like giving a kid a chance to run around in a candy shop and letting him taste all the goodies.

And, if the kid is lucky, every once in a while he’ll be able to devour the store’s piece de resistence, a Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae.

Well, if you like movies, you can gobble down that delectable sundae on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, on TCM.

Starting at 8 p.m. (ET, check local listings for other time zones), TCM will present, uncut and uninterrupted (as always) movies filmed by the cinematographer John Alton. All the films they are showing by this master artist are worth recording, but I want to talk about the film TCM is leading off with at 8 p.m., “The Big Combo.” It’s a major must-see.

[Editor's Note: Now that Oct 19, 2011 has passed, one can keep a look out as to when "The Big Combo" will play again on TCM--its does play periodically. Also, the film is available to rent at Netfilx or to be bought at Amazon.com.]

There are many film buffs—myself among them—who consider “The Big Combo,” made in 1954 and released in 1955, one of the best film noirs ever made.

There are many definitions of film noir. The popular movie critic Roger Ebert has written a list of what makes a movie a film noir. Here are two of the characteristics on Ebert’s list. First, he notes that film noir is “a French term meaning ‘black film,’ or film of the night, inspired by the Series Noir, a line of cheap paperbacks that translated hard-boiled American crime authors and found a popular audience in France.”

Another characteristic of film noir, Ebert notes, is that it’s “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.”

Another film critic, David Thompson, has said of cinematographer John Alton that “in the space of a few years he helped create the look of film noir.” Most of those films were in collaboration with director Anthony Mann in the late 1940s.

But then, in the mid-1950s, Alton hooked up with B-movie master Joseph H. Lewis to create, in my opinion, the best movie both men ever made, “The Big Combo.” Lewis directed a script by Philip Yordan.

The main protagonist of the film is a character played by Cornel Wilde, police detective Leonard Diamond. Diamond is obsessed with bringing down crime kingpin Mr. Brown, played by film noir favorite Richard (Nick) Conte.

[And it's not by coincidence that Quentin Tarantino named one of his main characters in "Reservoir Dogs" Mr. Brown.]

Brown’s main squeeze is debutante turned gun moll Susan Lowell, who is played by Wilde’s real-life wife at the time, Jean Wallace. And oh yeah, Diamond (Wilde’s character) is also obsessed with Lowell.

Filling out the primary cast of characters are Brown’s three henchmen, Mingo (Earl Holliman) and Fante (Lee Van Cleef) who also appear to be lovers, and the partially deaf McClure, a Mr. Brown wannabe, who is played by Brian Donlevy.

“The Big Combo” has all the usual elements of great film noirs: It’s stunningly photographed in shadows and dark by Alton, plus it’s raw, gritty and violent.

But there’s something else as well. As Carl Macek writes in the book “Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style," “There is a sense of fatalism and perverse sexuality in ‘The Big Combo’ that exists in few noir films. The relationship between Susan Lowell and Mr. Brown is a blending of fatalistic deference combined with a feeling of raw sexual abandon. Brown adores Susan’s body.”

Here’s how the writer Shelia O’Malley describes it in a blog entry: “Susan used to be a society girl, and something of a prodigy at the piano, but she has given all that up, and thrown in her lot with her gangster boyfriend, much to the bafflement of the world she has left behind. Why would she leave polite society and hang around with this thug? Ahhhh, but that’s because Susan is obsessed with something, too: the kind of sex she has with her gangster boyfriend. It’s dirty, it’s passionate, it’s fierce.”

O’Malley then quotes an interview "The Big Combo’s" director, Lewis–who died in 2000–once gave journalist and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich:

“I actually wanted to show – again by impression only – a man making love to a girl in this delightfully unique fashion that we have all dreamt about or experienced. Now, how do you show it on film? Well, I had an idea: as you saw the two of them, mixed with kissing her on the lips and then on the ear, the camera moved closer and closer and closer and, as you came into a huge closeup of Nick Conte and Jean Wallace, gradually Nick’s head disappeared: first kissing her neck, then lower and lower and then, at the precise moment, Jean, who was icy – I think she was afraid to betray herself for fear Cornel [her husband in real life] would raise hell with her – but at that precise moment I envisioned, I went ‘uh-uh-uh’ off-scene, and that was recorded. Cornel never forgave me for it.”

O’Malley continues, “The scene is as graphic as you can get, even more so because you don’t see it actually happen. You don’t need to.”

She adds, “Joseph Lewis got in trouble with the censors because of it. … Lewis told Bogdanovich that one of the censors said to him angrily, ‘I can’t believe you have put this filth into the movie of a man going down on a woman.’ Lewis protested innocence. ‘That is entirely your projection. I didn’t show it. You have supplied all of the emotion of the scene, as an audience is supposed to do. So don’t tell me I’m a filthy director.’ The scene stayed.”

Sex and violence. A mainstay of American B-movies in the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s.
Calling “The Big Combo” a “wholly defined film noir,” writer Macek of the “Film Noir” reference book continues, “[T]he striking contrasts between [John Alton’s] black and white photography and [director] Lewis’s sexual overtones isolate ‘The Big Combo’s’ characters in a dark, insular universe of unspoken repression and graphic violence.”

Much of mainstream media at the time dismissed many film noirs—for example, The New York Times review of “The Big Combo” when it was released said that it “isn’t very big or good. … [It’s] a shrill, clumsy and rather old-fashioned crime melodrama with all hands pulling in opposite directions.” The review continues, “Philip Yordan, the scenarist … and director Joseph Lewis share responsibility for the open-throttle monotonous serving of mayhem.”

Of course as American movies grew up, sex and violence and this mayhem, once stalwarts of low-budget B-movies, gradually became staples of A-pictures, culminating, in the 1970s, with movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II.”

One Comment

  1. It’s also on YouTube.

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