***PREFACE: THIS ENTRY DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS FILM, PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THERE ARE SPOILERS WITHIN. BUT, AS AN ADDITIONAL NOTE, KNOWING THE INFORMATION WILL NOT RUIN THE FILM. IT’S ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLY.***
The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.
Richard Sattin called it an “economy of style.” Louis Black wrote that “the visual aspects of the film are much richer and more complex than the narrative they are wrapped around.” In an interview with Peter Bogdonovich, director Joseph H. Lewis simply stated, “What interested me most was telling the story through the eyes of a camera. I didn’t like words- wherever I could, I cut words out, and told it silently through the camera…I think that’s what the camera is for and I think that’s what our medium is for.” From these statements, it is safe to assume that, while many filmmakers concentrate on the integrity of plot points or the caliber of an individual actor’s performance, this was not as crucial to the filmmaking of Joseph Lewis. A man who had climbed up through the ranks of the studio system, and had done everything from sweeping the studio floors to directing his own feature films, Lewis understood what he wanted out of a story, and he used the camera and the narrative in tandem to generate the desired results.
While having already made quite a few films by this point, Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo came right at the latter end of the “Noir years.” Released in 1955, the film was labeled by Motion Picture Daily as “strictly adult trade,” with Variety taking pause to note that it was “grim…and hard-hitting… The moronic fringe of sadists will enjoy this, and all the little kiddies will be sick to their stomachs.” Clearly an example of the trend in post-war cinema, James Naremore states, “the postwar thrillers…seemed more downbeat and perverse, perhaps because the war and its aftermath created a vision of ontological evil and a growing appetite for sadism.”
For all of its excessive violence and shockingly explicit sexual displays, the film actually deals more intrinsically with the power of the visual image, both narratively and stylistically. Within this tale that is summarily about a detective who is seeking to bring down a gangster’s syndicate, there is a strategic effort made to discuss the evolution of identity and the recouping of individual agency. Through the use of character doubling, as well as the development of the meaning of visual representation between characters, this film impresses upon the viewer the importance of trying to maintain agency, in an unstable world where it is easy to lose sight of who you are.
Seeing You Seeing Me, Being You Being Me
In her article, “Women in Film Noir,” Janey Place writes that film noir’s visual style conveys a mood of total instability, shifting values, and constantly redefined identities through the “expressive use of darkness: both real, in predominantly underlit and night-time scenes, and psychologically through shadows…Characters (and we in the audience) are given little opportunity to orient themselves…Silhouettes, shadows, mirrors and reflections (generally darker than the reflected person) indicate his lack of both unity and control. They suggest a doppelganger…or distorted side of man’s personality which will emerge…and destroy him.” Within the filmic text of The Big Combo, not only are the characters doubled through the shadowy visual style, but they are also given mirror images through the narrative. Each of the primary characters has a corresponding “doppelganger” that, like Place’s argument, seems to represent a darker, more destructive element that exists within them. As well, exacerbating the cracks in this already-fractured environment is the fact that these characters are doubled not once but twice, each with a different “other half.”
At the hospital, when Detective Diamond (Cornel Wilde) first meets Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the gangster, and McClure (Brian Donlevy), Mr. Brown’s flunky, we are given visual cues as to the relationships between all three characters. Mr. Brown and McClure are both representatives of different aspects of the otherwise lawful and “righteous” man, Lieutenant Diamond, as well as doppelgangers of each other. Shown in medium close-up, Brown deems Diamond not worthy of speaking to directly, thus he uses McClure as a go-between. He refuses to face Diamond, so he remains seated, back to the policeman. Not only are the shadows starkly present in this shot, but the physical positioning of the gangsters Brown and McClure put them back to back, almost as though they were a strange set of Siamese twins.
McClure is explicitly referred to as Mr. Brown’s double. As Brown states so succinctly in the scene previous to this, while gesturing at McClure, “We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it, now it belongs to me. We eat the same steaks, drink the same bourbon. Look-same manicure, same cufflinks.” It is made visually apparent in this shot, however, that McClure’s shadow is hanging over Brown. This might seem strange as he is, in actuality, second string. This shadow, however, speaks to the fact that, besides being Brown’s double, McClure used to be Brown’s boss. However, Brown is now the top dog, and, as he says, hinting at McClure’s own denigrated position, “First is first and second is nobody.” Thus, although McClure’s shadow may be bigger than Brown’s, it is just that- a shadow. McClure’s shadow is bigger than his physical appearance, meaning, essentially, he really is “nobody.”
What brings all these men together is Jean Wallace’s character, Susan. But Susan is quite complicated. Not only is she Brown’s girl, but she has just attempted suicide by chugging down a bottle of pills. If that wasn’t complicated enough, due to hospital and legal issues, not only is Susan the suicidal gangster’s moll, but we have now found out that half the reason that Diamond is obsessed with this case is that he is in love with the girl too.
Narratively, the parallels between Brown and Diamond are clearly drawn. If we couldn’t figure it out from their relationship with Susan, we are given a sequence in which the girl is removed from her hospital room out on a gurney, half-conscious, saying the name “Alicia” (incidentally, one of her doubles). Both Brown and Diamond possess intense gazes as she is wheeled down the corridor. Looking at these men standing next to one another, it is all we can do not to make a joke about them shopping at the same stores. With the exception of Brown’s hat and pocket kerchief, the two men are almost identical visual replicas of one another. Lit similarly, and located right next to each other in an analogous stance, it appears as if Diamond is just a taller version of Brown. Aligning these figures in this fashion only serves to underscore the doppelganger effect between the two men.
As we watch Diamond, he watches Brown watch Susan go down the hall. While we would expect Diamond to be watching Susan as well, seeing that he has spent $18,000 of the taxpayer’s money (as the police captain none-too-gently reminds him earlier) chasing her, he is actually watching Brown. It is almost as though he recognizes his alter ego/mirror image, and sees what Janey Place called the “distorted image…that will destroy him.” It is this kind of recognition that does in fact effect change in the characters within the diegesis. While Diamond is already shown as being obsessed with Susan and the case, this “recognition” leads him to play a significant role in facilitating the other “doppelgangers” and doubles to reveal the clues that help him solve the case.
Susan Lowell, the girl in the hospital, is formerly what one might call a “society girl.” Cultured and beautiful, she was interested in classical music and trained in piano- before she met Mr. Brown. At the point where we encounter her, she has been with him for almost 4 years, and is far from that girl that she used to be. As she states to the old friend she encounters in the bar, just before passing out from the overdose of pills, she is now more skilled in “stud poker” than piano. Her alter ego, the name she was murmuring in the hospital, is Alicia, Mr. Brown’s estranged wife, described by one of the characters as a “good girl. Healthy, right off the farm. Brown married her…two years later she was a lush, drink anything.” Susan now not only occupies Alicia’s place by Brown’s side, she has also taken up her position as the “good-girl-gone-bad” resulting from Mr. Brown’s formidable powers of corruption. Later, when Alicia and Susan meet, it is made unequivocally clear that Alicia is simply an older version of Susan. Through their encounter, we are shown the catalytic effect that meeting your “other half” has.
In that scene, Alicia is sitting in Diamond’s office. Susan enters the room, and Diamond pulls out a chair for her, facing Alicia. Alicia, smiles brightly, asking if Susan is a policewoman. The tone in her voice is the same slightly insane and child-like one that she used when Diamond found her tending her flowers at the sanitarium. Alicia, desiring to be someone else, someone younger and not scarred and tarnished by her past, is attempting to reclaim a child’s identity. Susan then identifies herself, telling Alicia that she is to be a witness against Mr. Brown, and that she has been Brown’s girl for four years. Alicia’s expression changes, “I’m not,” she says, and goes into complete denial, saying, “He met lots of girls, they were crazy about him.”
Susan admits her regret at being with Brown, to which Alicia’s entire attitude changes. “Then why did you stay with him for four years? Why’d you start?” To which Susan reacts with “I don’t know,” and tears. The way Alicia physically responds to Susan is with obvious identification, seeing her own innocence that is now gone.
The effect of the two-shot in which they appear, and the way the camera moves into a closer shot give it a certain degree of intimacy.
As we begin, the camera depicts a shot that is further away, visually involving the rest of the men in the room, Diamond, the police captain, and one other officer. As this scene slowly becomes about recognition of the self in the other, the camera moves in, focusing solely on the two women. The only time this is broken up is when Diamond butts in, making the comment, “Take a good look at her Alicia, take a good look. You can see yourself ten years ago. If you had only spoken up then, how different your life would have been.” As heavy-handed as this comment is, the shot of him, between the women, is fast, while his voice continues and we watch Alicia battle with the reality of “meeting herself” ten years earlier.
The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye
Beyond the doubling that has been shown, photographic evidence plays a huge role in the progression of the film and its emphasis on the visual image. By utilizing photographs as major catalysts for the revelation of secrets within the film’s narrative, The Big Combo exploits the visual image within the visual image. While the perspective vacillates between the character as privileged spectator and the audience as privileged spectator (or sometimes both), these seemingly innocuous “props” within the film point to the intrinsic value of visible representation. Whether it is through physical doubling or through a piece of photographic paper reflecting a certain likeness, it is that very visual insignia that serves to propel internal conflict within characters and an eventual revelation of truth.
At the point in the film when Susan leaves Mr. Brown, she comes to visit Diamond and brings him a photograph. Having not yet found her, Diamond is under the impression that Alicia is dead, having been murdered by Mr. Brown. The night before, Brown’s men had mistakenly killed Diamond’s on-again/off-again lover, the burlesque dancer, Rita, thinking it was Diamond, so this was not a far jump in logic. Susan hands him the photograph, telling Diamond that not only is Alicia alive, but according to Brown, she is well and living in Sicily. After a brief look at the photograph, Diamond realizes that not only is Alicia not in Sicily, but she may be closer than they think. He takes the photo to a lab to have it analyzed, and the results expose not only Alicia’s location, but also her personal evolution.
The first-person perspective shot of the photograph when given to Diamond, juxtaposed against the darkened room of the laboratory where they are doing a photographic comparison, lays bare the nature of what the photograph means within this context. Where we become aligned with Diamond’s perspective in his office in viewing the photograph, we then are welcomed into the police laboratory and are privy to their commentary on Alicia’s “changes” but through the machinery. We enter the lab, and see a projector, with its image the only light in the room.
Now aligned with the actual image-making apparatus, the shot follows its line of projection to the two off-kilter and shadowy images of Alicia, in full view upon the wall. One is Alicia from the past, with Brown, and the other, more recent image is the one offered up by Susan. With this carefully constructed spectator view, we are reminded that visual images within the noir film text are volatile and changing, speaking to the very character points that are reinforced by the narrative. Even one of the technicians notes, “She sure changed since the other picture…”
When Diamond finds Alicia, she is at a sanitarium, and happily introduces herself as Anna Lee Jackson, denying any knowledge or affiliation with Mr. Brown.
As Diamond continues to question her, he confronts her with what we are led to assume is the photograph of her with Mr. Brown. However, we do not see the photograph. All we see is her expression change drastically upon taking it from Diamond’s hands, and her extreme emotional response as she tears it to shreds. As Diamond tells her about Rita’s death at the hands of Brown’s men, Alicia screams in denial, covering her ears, closing her eyes, and repeating “I’m sick, can’t you see? I’m sick?” Diamond responds that she is not sick, just scared. Finally, as the camera closes in tight on her face, she reveals the truth.
As we are now given a more privileged and personal view, we learn why she is really in the sanitarium, information that would not have been revealed had the photograph not prompted a response. Alicia’s eyes still closed, she tells Diamond, “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane and dead.” It is the threat of Brown that has kept her away, in the sanitarium, feigning insanity.
The photograph acts as a truth serum in this circumstance. The “harsh truth” of the camera eye has lifted the mystery of Alicia’s disappearance, but by her own admission. Just as the uneven and shadowy projected images in the dark police lab led us to see that this is a “visually unstable environment in which… identities that pass in and out of shadow are constantly shifting and must be redefined at every turn,” photographs serve as reminders of past and present identities and the passage between them, rarely in a positive way. Alicia’s revelation to Diamond comes with a steep price: she must reclaim her identity. She can no longer be Anna Lee Jackson, but must revert to the discarded and unwanted identity of “Alicia Brown,” all because of a likeness on a piece of paper.
Within the film text, we are witness to the mistaken homicide of Rita by Brown’s men. Rita, a physical representative of the underworld, is a stripper as well as possibly a prostitute. On the other hand, she is also one of the few genuinely sensitive characters in the film, making her death all the more tragic. However, her significance comes not necessarily from her life, but from her death. Rita’s image, both in underworld iconography and as photographed object helps to facilitate both character development as well as narrative progression.
In the meeting between Alicia and Susan, Diamond shows them the photograph of the dead girl. Diamond shows the women a photograph, growling that Brown had killed her, “Someone he didn’t know, never met, never saw.” Alicia stares at the picture in horror, as Susan begins to cry. “They took eleven bullets out of her body, and Miss Lowell had breakfast with him the next morning,” Diamond continues, shoving the photograph of dead Rita in Alicia’s face. Alicia stares at the photo, closes her eyes, and states, “I’ll tell whatever I know.”
Until this point, Alicia had continued to deny that she had any knowledge whatsoever about any of Brown’s wrongdoings. In the beginning of the scene, she strongly asserts that she is not testifying against Brown. When Diamond brings up Rita, she refutes any previous knowledge of her murder even though Diamond told her all about it at the sanitarium. As Diamond becomes more insistent, Alicia mirrors her previous behavior at the sanitarium, insisting she knows nothing. However, upon seeing the photograph, she calms down, realizing, once again, what she is looking at: another image of herself.
Rita is the double of both women. Both Susan and Alicia are good girls who have fallen, due to the advances of one, Mr. Brown. Thus, their identities are liminal ones: they are “good” yet they have partaken in the underworld, similar to the story of Persephone. Seeing Rita’s dead body is like seeing a reflection of themselves, which serves a dual purpose. This photograph, shown only to them, helps Susan and Alicia realize that this is their “out,” and that by revealing the truth, testifying against Brown, they can be resurrected from their liminal identity as “good-girl-gone-bad.”
Additionally, it propels them into the truth because they quickly realize that the image of the dead burlesque queen could just as easily been their image, 11 bullets in their body, while someone else eats breakfast with Mr. Brown. When Alicia was gone, he got Susan. What happens if Susan is gone? They are expendable. The lifeless double in the photograph reminds these women that in order to recuperate their personal identities, they must tell the truth, and put Brown away. As the scene ends, the women look at each other as if in the mirror, recognizing each other as the “other,” and knowing that in order to regain personal agency they must keep these secrets no longer.
Taking Back the Light
Janey Place and Lowell Peterson note that, “in the most notable examples of film noir, as the narratives drift headlong into confusion and irrelevance, each character’s precarious relationship to the world, the people who inhabit it, and to himself and his own emotions, becomes a function of visual style.” Strategically, at the end of the film, Lewis and cameraman John Alton make the most of noir visual style by showing what happens when a character decides to “take back the light.”
In the beginning of The Big Combo, we see Susan running through extremely dark, almost black, corridors, as though she is being chased. As the scene progresses, we see that she, in fact, is being chased by two men. They catch up with her, and grab her by the arms. The light shines brightly on her head and shoulders, but nowhere else, making her appear practically naked. The intention of this was to show her ultimate vulnerability, and increase the visual strength of the two men imprisoning her, as they are bathed in darkness and shadow. Not only does this set up Susan’s situation within the underworld, but the vulnerability that is an integral part of the character she starts out as.
Because one of the primary thematic elements of this film is doubling, it is fitting that the film should end the way it began. However, due to the fact that this is film noir, it will not be an exact replica, by a long shot. As Janey Place has argued, and as is made apparent within the film text, a doppelganger is not necessarily an exact duplicate.
Foster Hirsch notes, “the ideal metaphor for the world view that prevails in noir is the maze-like, many mirrored fun house…” In a place where nothing is as it seems, it would make sense that things as integral as power can change during the course of even one scene. Film noir, rife with its unstable personality, whether represented visually or developed narratively, causes the power structure that is ominously present in the beginning of this film to be flipped by the end.
By the finale, Mr. Brown realizes that he’s done for. He has nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He kidnaps Susan before she has a chance to rat him out, and goes to a private hanger where he waits impatiently for the plane that is supposed to arrive. Susan goes to light a cigarette, and he slaps it out of her hand, and then slaps her face, hard, warning her not to try that again. She looks directly at Mr. Brown and responds, “I want to be seen.” And she does. After meeting Alicia, and looking her own possible future straight in the eyes, she realizes what she has become, and wants to “out” her true self, the one that does not go along with everything that Mr. Brown says or wants.
Brown continues to pace, complaining about the pilot not arriving. “Everything’s falling apart. Can’t trust nobody, nothing,” he says, walking into the fog. As he completes this statement, he looks upward, just as a light hits him.
He looks towards the light, and realizes it’s a police car, and, like Susan’s sprint at the beginning of the film, he runs into the blackness of the hanger, knowing he’s trapped, trying to get away. From the deep fog, where his physical appearance cannot be seen, we hear Diamond’s footsteps coming closer and closer, and his voice telling Brown that it’s done, and to come on out. Brown starts to shoot, but he is shooting at nothing, as he can’t see his target. He can’t see anything, and is looking back and forth, panicked. At the same time, the camera returns to Susan, who is actively watching this exchange between Brown and the police. When Diamond says, “You can’t get away, Brown,” the camera returns to a shot of Susan, who turns around
and grabs a light on the car. Turning towards the camera, she flashes the light directly at the camera, and at the spectator, but is supposed to be at Brown. The scene continues and wherever Brown is, she finds him with the light. In this way, Brown is finally caught and taken away, a man on either side of him, small and vulnerable, a vision analogous to Susan’s in the beginning.
By trapping Brown with the light, Susan succeeds at retrieving personal agency. The main thrust of Brown’s intimidation factor was that Brown could not be caught because no one would speak out against him, for fear of personal injury or death. No one could touch Brown. Within the heavy fog and blackness, it seems that Brown is still untouchable. When the police fire back, they do not hit him. Susan wants them to know how vulnerable he truly is, thus she makes use of the light, and shows him in all his ensnared glory. Through the claustrophobic spotlight, Brown is now shown to be as vulnerable as Susan was, with the solid blacks and whites that cut across her body in the opening sequence.
It is a mixture of revenge and empowerment. Although Susan is not a femme fatale in the archetypal way, and Brown is certainly no hero, she does use Brown’s trust to undo him, like many other great femme fatales before her. However, through the shining of the light directly at the spectator, we are made aware that she is not doing this out of vindictiveness or with malicious intent, but to look at the situation straight in the eye, as she does the camera, and reclaim the strength of the light for herself.
To See or Not to See…
From its inception, the term “film noir” has taken on a multiplicity of definitions. Ranging from a “series” of films to “subtle qualities of tone and mood,” this term has come to mean a variety of different things to different critics and film historians. Perspective is bounced back and forth like a ping-pong ball, and, for the most part, the end of each film is not necessarily a happy one. These labyrinthine plots involving detectives, policemen, and regular Joes (who have fallen into irregular circumstances), while interesting, never seem to matter as much as the journey itself. In fact, more often than not, the plot is rather forgettable. What is not forgettable, however, is the visual style of each film.
The Big Combo holds special significance in this respect because it is entirely predicated on visual presentation. From character doubling and significance of a photograph to the use of light within a darkened area as an expression of power, visual communication structures the very heart of this film. John Alton, the cinematographer of The Big Combo, wrote that the right visual stimulation “becomes a symphonic construction…with the aid of this visual concert we can actually hypnotize the audience.” In this respect, Joseph Lewis and John Alton worked in collusion to create a film that not only underscored the integrity and the power of the visual image but actualized it in such a way that the spectator could participate in the journey as well.
 Sattin, Richard. “Joseph H. Lewis: Assessing an Occasionally Brilliant Career.” American Classic Screen Nov/Dec 1983: 51-55.
 Black, Louis. “The Big Combo.” Cinema Texas: Program Notes 14.3 (1978): 75-84.
 Bogdonovich, Peter. Interview with Joseph H. Lewis. Who the Devil Made it?: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1997.
 “The Big Combo.” Motion Picture Daily 1 Feb 1955. The Big Combo Production Code Administration file. Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, 14 March, 2005.
 “The Big Combo.” Variety 16 Feb 1955. The Big Combo Production Code Administration file. Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, 14 March, 2005.
 Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
 Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” Women In Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1998.
 Place, Janey and Lowell Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.
 Place and Peterson, ibid.
 Hirsch, Foster. Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981.
 Borde, Raymond and Etienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.
 Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.
 Alton, John. Painting With Light. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.