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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

The Big Combo, eulogized

for a cinema of economy against a cinema of hyperbole

A detective obsessed with catching a criminal, to the point where the two mirror each other . . . not Heat (Michael Mann, 1995) but a film of 40 years earlier, The Big Combo (Joseph H Lewis, 1955). What an array of talent! Not just director Lewis, but screenwriter Philip Yordan, composer David Raksin, and director of photography, John Alton. Low budget, high art. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Consider the opening 10 shots, following the credits:

  1. Night, cops directing crowds across a road.
  2. Dissolve to LS of boxing match.
  3. Back of the stadium, lit with light and shadow, very high walls: a woman comes towards us running, chased by two men.
  4. Shaft of light: the woman enters it running, then exits.
  5. Repeat of shot 3, the set a little altered: the woman chased again, as if in a labyrinth.
  6. Swing doors in dark and light: the woman runs through them.
  7. LS of woman other side of the doors, two men still chasing. Our eye is drawn to a coffee counter at the right with a single customer.
  8. The two men catch and hold the woman, then let her go.
  9. Frontal MS of woman walking into the light, slight pullback of camera while a muted trumpet plays the main musical motif softly; the two men enter the frame, and one leaves.
  10. MS of woman with hoodlum (Lee Van Cleef, for it is he is) in full light throwing shadows on wall, followed by camera doing a swift pan right to the coffee counter from shot 7, where it holds the shot, then as the customer finishes his coffee he walks diagonally into CU.
  11. Dissolve to . . . etc.

The first thing to applaud is the way the film states that the woman is running from the boxing match: she's not shown at the ring, just at the back of the stadium, in flight. The juxtaposition of the ring and of the woman running is all that is needed for us to connect the two, while at the same time conveying the notion that she is running from everything, not just a boxing match. Top economy of narrative.

The second reason is John Alton's direct quote of Edward Hopper, the painter of human solitude, who liked to frame his individuals in the window so that we see them through a glass screen, rather like a film director in fact. This frame capture recalls 'Nighthawks' (1942), in particular.

Nor is this redundant pictorialism since the pan to the coffee counter and the man then moving forward links the two elements of the story: we've seen the hoodlums; now the film introduces a detective.

The third reason is the immediate sense of claustrophobia that the sequence generates, a case of 'Start as you mean to go on': the protagonists move in spaces determined by the lighting and the shadows and silhouettes they create. A triumph of black-and-white chiaroscuro.

A triumph too for classical Hollywood as opposed to the mannerist Hollywood of Heat. That was made with a massive budget, bigger stars, bigger set pieces when with The Big Combo Joseph H Lewis (and the producer Sydney Harmon) show how it can be done so much more simply without losing quality. What is more the psychology of the cop-criminal relationship in Lewis's film is far less glamorous, more gritty and more cruel than in Heat. Heat managers to give a sheen to its posturing, show-off psychopaths; in its underplayed but disturbing torture scenes, The Big Combo paints a darker interior picture to match Alton’s exteriors, oppressive in their combination of darkness and blinding light.

171 minutes of Heat? Well, probably. 84 minutes of The Big Combo? Yes, definitely.

(c) Tim Cawkwell, May 2013