A blonde young woman, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), is running through corridors away from the boxing match she's been attending and there are two men pursuing her. When they catch up with her they tell her that their boss, Mr Brown (Richard Conte), insists that she be taken back to see the rest of the match, but she asks to be taken home. Meanwhile, Police Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is deep in thought over his attempts to bring Brown to justice; he knows that Brown is a big shot gangster, but too clever to be caught. His Captain, Peterson (Robert Middleton) tells him he shouldn't let this have such a hold over him, as he's spending too much public money on it, but it's no use - Diamond is determined to save Susan from Brown, for, like Brown, he's in love with her...
One of the last film noirs of the fifties, The Big Combo sets itself up as a "breaking the crime ring" thriller, but as it progresses it's more a study in obsessions, with the two leading characters consumed with their passion for one woman, one good, one evil. Ably directed by B-movie thriller expert Joseph H. Lewis, it was written by Philip Yordan, author of other cult movies such as Dillinger and Johnny Guitar, and like those films gains colour in its story by its verging-on-the-weird characters. Here, even the smallest roles can be distinctive, although it's the main protagonists that take the lion's share of neuroses.
Susan is strangely sickly, never more so when near the start of the film she takes an overdose of pills and passes out on the dance floor. She can't stand being Brown's girlfriend and will resort to suicide to be free of him, but Wallace's enervated performance runs through the whole story, making the two men's adoration of her seem strangely sickly too (the film should have been shot in shades of green for maximum effect). Brown has replaced the man at the top, Grazzi, and Diamond wants to see him behind bars, but this is one of those cop movies where the baddie can get up to all sorts and never be touched by the long arm of the law until the very end.
While in her overdose-induced delirium, Susan repeats the same name over and over again, "Alicia", and Diamond believes this to be a clue that will secure him a conviction. However, frustratingly nobody will tell him who Alicia is, not even Susan when she comes round, so he brings Brown in for questioning under a minor charge. This film likes its technology, so not only does Diamond have his case recorded on reel to reel tape, but also he likes to use a lie detector on Brown. With his responses to random and not-so-random words, it's clear that Brown knows something about Alicia, but he bluffs his way through the interview and has to be released.
The cinematography was courtesy of John Alton, a master of his art, and the deep shadows here are among the darkest in the movies. Working on a low budget, his innovations include creating the illusion of an airport simply by putting a revolving lamp on a pole and adding some mist, which works perfectly. Another thing that The Big Combo is famous for is its sleaziness, with a torture scene conducted with the use of a hearing aid and a radio, and a surprisingly explicit - for its day - oral sex scene. Brown's henchmen include the bitter man who wanted his job, McClure (Brian Donlevy), and two gay hoodlums, played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman - er, and that's about it. We largely have to take Brown's influence as read, and why doesn't he have a Italian name when he's obviously Mafia? Conte portrays him with clipped and dapper menace, an excellent contrast to Wilde's plodding, sorry for himself lieutenant, and all the psychological angst here would keep Freud in business for years. Jazzy music by David Raksin.
Dependable American B-movie director who turned his hand to westerns (Terror in a Texas Town) and horrors (Invisible Ghost) but was especially good at thrillers: My Name is Julia Ross, So Dark the Night, The Big Combo among them. His most celebrated film is the "Bonnie and Clyde"-inspired Gun Crazy. He left the movies to become a television director in the 1950s.