“The Big Combo” is known as a “nervous A” picture, released by Allied Artists, which had been set up by the B-movie company Monogram as a unit for more lavish and interesting, but still cheaper, productions - it is this thinking that led Jean-Luc Godard to dedicate his first film, 1959’s “A Bout de Souffle” (known in English as “Breathless”) to Monogram.
Therefore, “The Big Combo” was an example of a film where the use of low light to mark cheap sets, using fewer camera set-ups, and using a jazz-influenced score over a full orchestra, was hoped to be interpreted as style, rather than economy – the classic "Touch of Evil," made three years later in 1958, deployed the same techniques, but the style was instead signalled through having been directed by Orson Welles. Film noir is a genre made of stark contrasts of black and white, both in the morals of characters as well as on screen, and this film considered a solid, confident example of how those elements work.
The “combo” of “The Big Combo” is run by the sadistic Mr. Brown, who is being investigated by police lieutenant Diamond over what happened to a woman from his past, who has disappeared. Diamond is also obsessed over Brown’s current girlfriend, Susan, who he only meets for the first time when she turns up in hospital. The disappeared woman, Alicia, is thought to be in Sicily with Mr. Brown’s boss, but in reality, the boss was murdered, and used by Mr. Brown as a cover, while Alicia was placed in an asylum. Diamond, derided by Brown from the outset as a righteous man, with his $96.50 weekly salary used as an insult more than once, is unshakeable in his quest to jail Brown, whose increasingly frantic actions eventually leaves him cornered. In all, so much, so film noir. A sample line of dialogue: “I’m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal. Once it gets started, it’s hard to stop.”
Joseph H. Lewis, the film’s director, had been making up to seven films a year when his career began, until his talent led to longer shoots and higher budgets, but the set-up of some shots show his B-movie pedigree – long, almost uncomfortable shots of people reacting, or to allow the acting to breathe. John Alton, the film’s cinematographer - and writer of a book explaining his craft, titled “Painting with Light” - uses few lights, long shadows, and stark contrasts, leading to the film’s famous climax at an airport, looking a little like “Casablanca,” where Brown attempts to dodge a spotlight that finally leaves him no place to hide.
In one scene, Diamond is tied to a chair, tortured by being slapped, has alcohol forced into them, and has loud music played to them through a hearing aid belonging to McClure, Brown’s second in command. Quentin Tarantino acknowledged this scene was an inspiration for the similar, but more brutal, scene in “Reservoir Dogs” - hearing the lead villain referred to only as “Mr. Brown” must have suggested an idea too. However, the use of sound as torture was the bigger talking point at the time, not least when McClure, once Brown's boss, has his aid taken away as a compassionate measure, so he cannot hear the gunfire that will execute him - we don't hear it either.
Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace, as Diamond and Susan, happily upturned the unhealthy relationship they have in "The Big Combo," as they were already married for four years by the film's 1955 production, and the film was produced by their company, named Theodora - they later had a son, named Cornel Jr.