THE GANGSTERS ALL HERE Live Tweet movie for Sat., Oct. 24: THE BIG COMBO (1955)

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This week, The Gangsters All Here makes a bid for legitimacy with a film-noir gem titled The Big Combo. It stars Cornel Wilde as Police Lt. Leonard Diamond, who is on a one-man quest to bring down Mr. Brown (ultra-slick Richard Conte), a racketeer who appears to control everything and everyone in town except for Lt. Diamond. The worthy supporting cast includes Helen Walker (in her final film role), Jean Wallace, and Brian Donlevy (who seems to play a slobbering syncophant in about every other one of these types of movies).

And my dear online blogger-friend Salome at BNoirDetour would never forgive me if I didn’t mention two other memorable supporting actors: Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman as Mr. Brown’s henchmen Fante and Mingo. When I first watched this movie, I regarded this less-than-dynamic duo as simply the movie’s answer to Of Mice and Men‘s simpletons George and Lennie. But Ms. Salome finds a fascinating homoerotic subtext to this pair’s relationship, right down to their sleeping in separate but nearby beds. You decide.

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Are you kidding? With all of the aforementioned juicy plot elements, plus a jazzy score from Laura‘s David Raksin, this movie can’t possibly get less than 5 out of 5 fannies. You’ll want to stay put right up to the movie’s final shot (which unapologetically apes, er, does a homage to a legendary film from the 1940’s). See you this Saturday!

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THE BIG COMBO (1955) – Mr. Brown comes to town

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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.

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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.

KISS OF DEATH (1947) – Gritty, to-the-point film-noir

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A crook turns stoolie so that he can see his kids again. The basic plot of Kiss of Death would work perfectly in high-concept Hollywood. Sadly, these days, Hollywood would leave out the terrific touches that have made this movie such a memorable example of film noir. (In fact, Hollywood did just that with a half-hearted remake in 1995.)

The movie begins with jewelry-store thief Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) and his gang pulling off a heist at a jewelry store in a New York City high-rise. Director Henry Hathaway tightens the suspense by showing the gang trying to escape on an elevator that makes far too many stops for fresh passengers, and the gang members start sweating out every new stop. When a movie takes the time for little nuances that a lot of big movies would brush off, you know you’re in for a great feat of storytelling.

Mature as Nick.

Mature as Nick.

At first, Nick is the stoic gangster, willing to go to Sing Sing rather than squeal on his fellow hoodlums. But when his family is thrown asunder while he’s in jail, Nick caves and starts naming names to the assistant district attorney (Brian Donlevy). Nick also gets in good with gangster Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark in his screen debut) so that he can get some juicy info on him for the ADA. The movie is quite eager to show us that Udo is not someone whom you double-cross lightly. This is depicted most graphically in what is probably the movie’s most famous scene, dramatically demonstrating that Udo is…well, not terribly sensitive to the physically disabled.

Widmark as Udo.

Widmark as Udo.

The screenplay by Hollywood veterans Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer (from Eleazar Lipsky’s original story), and Henry Hathaway’s taut direction, give the movie a straight-from-the-headlines tabloid feel. This is further aided by Norbert Brodine’s straight-to-the-point photography, which beautifully captures the movie (as is boasted in the opening titles) at authentic New York locations. And the flawless cast further punches the movie’s gritty tableau across. Mature, Widmark, Donlevy, and utterly charming Coleen Gray (also making her film debut here) provide a riveting movie experience.

A lot of films-noir make their points with heightened dialogue and stylized photography. Kiss of Death gives you the refreshing feeling of seeing an Everyman placed in the middle of a film-noir situation and doing his best to escape it. (Talk about stylized, though — if you ever hear anyone laugh like Richard Widmark, run for the hills.)