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Monday, February 19, 2018

Noir Stepping Closer To The Line

The Big Combo Is A Bracing 50's Slap

Getting goods on the "Organization" is mission for bitter cop Cornel Wilde, who's hobbled by love interest in moll Jean Wallace, she having begun as a good girl corrupted by Richard Conte's untouchable hood. Conte was a last minute substitution for Jack Palance, the latter dropped when he insisted that his wife be given a top female spot. There is violence bracketed by talk (lots) staged in dark spots like RKO once used for economy. Trade ads promised shock along lines of recent Dragnet and On The Waterfront, both hits, and positive reviews looked back further to Scarface and Public Enemy. Cornel Wilde's independent Theodora Productions teamed with producer Sidney Harmon and writer Phillip Yordan's Security Pictures to do The Big Combo, set for tee-off on 9/10/54 in color/widescreen (later down-sized to black-and-white), Allied Artists aboard as of 7/54 with commit to distribute. The latter's Steve Broidy was busy upgrading AA product from humbler Monogram origin, The Big Combo to open February, 1955 with two others of crime-thrilling category, Murder Is My Beat and Dial 116.

Combo got bumped a month on AA's decide to up its advertising budget and saturation-book the thriller for March '55. Cornel Wilde and wife/co-star Jean Wallace guested on NBC-TV's Colgate Comedy Hour and reenacted seven-minutes from The Big Combo to hypo its imminent release. That same month, Broidy hectored an exhibitor conference re over-reliance on blockbusters that left his smaller pics in the cold, warning them that if product like AA's dried up, they'd be at the mercy of big companies who'd then ratchet up terms. For guys like Broidy, it was non-stop war for playdates, his outfit obliged to crowbar The Big Combo and others of AA label into theatres.  Combo's director Joseph H. Lewis and cameraman John Alton would drive later interest among noir fanciers who might have embraced the pic tighter had decent prints been in circulation. You'd have thought it was a lost film for ugliness of DVD's, but these were rotted fruit of Combo's Public Domain status. Now there is, at long last, a Blu-Ray of excellent quality from Olive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off topic, I know, but I hope you saw TCM's presentation of Shanghai Express last Sunday. Looked great, shimmering like I hear a nitrate print is expected to do. It really showcased the beauty of old Joe's visual excesses. Hope this new transfer portends a box set of his work with Marlenia D.

9:43 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I saw that broadcast, and it was a honey. Best I've ever seen SHANGHAI EXPRESS look.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Caught The Big Combo on YouTube because of an April, 1955 episode of I Love Lucy -- The Star Upstairs, guest starring Cornel Wilde -- which plugged it;

Lucy: (Re: Wilde) I just wanna SEE him.
Ricky: Oh, well if you just wanna see him, I can arrange that.
Lucy: You can?!
Ricky: Sure, I'll take you to see his new picture, The Big Combo, it's getting wonderful reviews.
Lucy: No, I wanna see him up close!
Ricky: OK, we'll sit in the front row.

Not sure if the plug was as effective on 1955 audiences as it proved to be on me 50 years later (to be fair, while listening to all of the Jack Benny and the Burns & Allen radio shows -- chronologically -- I was persuaded to buy both Jello and Spam respectively), but I found it to be a tight little thriller with a great jazz soundtrack, and surprisingly adult for 1955. (Unfortunately it was not only 1:33:1, but the top and bottom of the image had been cropped as well -- glad to hear that Olive Films has fixed that.)

Surprised to see no mention of the fact that a gay relationship is implied between Conte's henchmen Fante and Mingo, played by Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef. At first I though I was projecting, but the straight friends I was watching with assured me it was there (and surprisingly blatant) -- that had to be some kind of first. In fact, the only other set of gay henchmen I can recall are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever, but they were played effeminately for camp value, whereas Fante and Mingo most definitely weren't.

12:41 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

John Alton is probably the only real important personality that emerged from Argentina to move to Hollywood.

Two years ago, Fernando Martín Peña, introduced the film (titled in Spanish, GANGSTERS EN FUGA) and even he mentions the scene in which they suggested an oral sex situation.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I suspect that the gay hoodlums in The Big Combo were pitched at a dog whistle that the more hipster members of the audience could hear, but ordinary squares could not. (When Van Cleef says something about being trapped in the closet, was that commonly-known lingo then?) There's a similar situation between Robert Keith and Eli Wallach as the young killer and his mentor in Don Siegel's The Lineup two years later-- curious that two of the three of The Good the Bad and the Ugly should have turned up playing closety gangsters.

Anyway, the Bond films were always good for borrowing from 50s noirs, and I would assume Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd were a deliberate borrowing, more exaggerated, from Van Cleef and Holliman here. Another thing I suspect got borrowed-- watch the scene where Conte is pretending to ignore Cornel Wilde with his back to him, yet still talking to him, his body stiffly turned away from him and his teeth gritted in a rictus smile. Remind you of anybody? It looks like Dr. Strangelove's body language to me.

12:16 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Neely, is it just Stinky, or is there something going on between Wilmer and The Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon?

9:42 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Stinky, I've pondered that, but tend to think not. I guess since I don't find it in the book, I always figured that if Houston had wanted to imply there was something going on between Wilbur and The Fat Man, he'd have done so with the same degree of subtlety he applied to the shot of Joel Cairo practically fellating the handle of that walking stick!

11:36 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Haven't read the novel in a long time, but to Stinky's jaded eyes, it's pretty clear in Huston's version, Wilmer and Gutman are gay.

Watch the way Gutman grasps Spade's arm when they first meet, and later, how he grabs Spade's leg, just above the knee. Twice. There are two beds in Gutman's bedroom. Wilmer is constantly referred to as "boy", and he's brought to tears by Spade's taunts. And Spade calls Wilmer a "gunsel".

Gunsel has come to be known as a gun-toting hoodlum, but an earlier definition was a young man kept for homosexual purposes, according to several online slang dictionaries.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

Fante & Mingo were honored decades later in the movie Serenity by Joss Whedon as two twin brothers who hired the main characters for a theft job (spelled as Fanty and Mingo, and played by Rafael & Yan Feldman.)

8:05 PM  

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