The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis / U.S., 1955):

John Alton’s nocturnal abstractions are staggering and, under Joseph H. Lewis’s aegis, quite distinct from the chiaroscuro of Mann’s noirs. (Surfaces are more liquid, as befits a pond of shifting alliances and kinks.) The heroine (Jean Wallace) is a sliver of wounded light in the void, doleful and neurasthenic like the blonde barmaid in Mouchette. Her captor and lover (Richard Conte) is an underworld lord who appreciates the value of personality and the force of hate, and whose Mediterranean sensuality strokes her masochistic zones -- he kisses Wallace’s neck and slowly disappears below the frame, the disgusted ecstasy on her gulping face fills the screen (cp. Malle’s Les Amants). "What is it about a hoodlum that appeals to certain women?" the police detective (Cornel Wilde) fumes. Justice is but a cover for pathological loathing and envy, the hero’s vendetta against the kingpin ("like fighting a swamp with a teaspoon") stems from an obsessive need to wrestle his woman away. To make his point, Conte borrows his associate’s (Brian Donlevy) hearing aid and doles out punishment to Wilde’s eardrums. (The second half of the gag comes later, when Lewis drops the sound at the flash of machine-gun fire.) "I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal." Other denizens of the maze include the detective’s burlesque-house fuck-buddy (Helene Stanton), the gangster’s wife (Helen Walker) "buried alive" in an asylum, and Ted de Corsia cooking past while awaiting death in an apartment. Conte’s hired assassins (Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman) sleep in His & His twin beds and chat about salami and closets; laugh "knowingly" all you want, the fact remains that Holliman’s tearful outburst at his partner’s death is the film’s most direct eruption of feeling. Tired of being an illuminating trophy, the heroine finally revolts and seizes the searchlight herself; Lewis ribs Casablanca for the finale, and goes his own perverse way. With Robert Middleton, Jay Adler, John Hoyt, and Roy Gordon. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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