About the only thing wrong with the sizzling film-noir The Big Combo is its title. The cast is uniformly excellent, but it doesn’t make you think of a combo, because there’s plainly one standout: Richard Conte as a showy gangster known to one and all only as Mr. Brown.
Conte plays this guy smooth as silk. You keep waiting for somebody to find Mr. Brown’s Achilles’ heel, and occasionally it happens. But even when it does, Mr. Brown never loses his cool; he just jumps back for a split-second, as though a spider had fallen off the ceiling onto his sharply creased jacket, and then he goes right back into his gangster patter. This is another of those old movies that’s meant to teach you that crime doesn’t pay, yet you end up rooting for the bad guy.
It’s not for lack of trying on the good guy’s part, though. Cornel Wilde plays Leonard Diamond, a police lieutenant determined to blow most of the city’s budget in trying to bring down Mr. Brown. Every element of the story seems ripe for parody, but the entire cast underplays so perfectly that you end up taking the movie at face value and loving it. Jean Wallace and Helen Walker as Brown’s lovers present and past, Brian Donlevy as Brown’s put-upon stooge — they all put the movie’s point across without forcing things.
The icing on the cake is David Raksin’s jazzy score (What a turnabout from Laura!) and John Alton’s ultra-stylish photography (SPOILER ALERT: Does the movie’s final shot remind anyone else of Casablanca?). The Big Combo is indeed quite the film-noir platter.