Pulp My Daisy: Jazz, Noir & Beatniks - The Big Combo

The story, in a nutshell, depicts the bloody tug-of-war over Jean Wallace by her wily gangster paramour, Mr. Conte, and a hard-headed cop, Mr. Wilde. The latter’s muscular campaign to get the goods on his mortal enemy fans out over some picturesque people and territory. Few of the characters, least of all the three principals, along with some key incidents ring true. And the entire picture, for all the frenzied attempts at realism, is carefully and expansively rigged with brutality and violence (six corpses, for the record). Most of the tactics employed went out with Prohibition.

But John Alton’s camerawork is what truly sets it apart. The influential, Hungarian-born cinematographer had worked in noir before, but here, he seems determined to deliver a master class in noir style, filling the screen with deep shadows, piercing beams of light, and creeping fogs. Lewis uses his work to great effect. A few scenes spin in circles as the plot works toward not-so-shocking revelations, but the film’s back half is littered with memorable setpieces, including a torture scene involving a hearing aid, hair tonic, and pounding jazz music, and a pair of scenes set in an airline hangar that pay homage to Casablanca’s finale. Alton gives the film a classic noir look, but the combined efforts give the film a classic noir feel, a sense that goodness rarely triumphs over corruption, and that the world is governed by rules as black-and-white as the film.

Dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1955, 16mm, 84 min.

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