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The Big Combo (1955);
The Enforcer (1951)

The Big Combo (1955)
August 4, 2006 - 7:30 pm

Preservation funded by The Film Foundation

The Big Combo (1955)

Directed by Joseph Lewis

"I''m trying to run an impersonal business. Killing is very personal!"

Brazenly stylized, deeply cynical, and very funny, The Big Combo tells the story of police lieutenant Cornell Wilde's quest to uncover the secret past of a notorious mob boss while simultaneously seducing the mobster's girl. This classically noirish premise is undermined at every turn, as director Joseph Lewis (Gun Crazy) sets his film in a world where crime, romance and even mystery have become thoroughly corporatized. The cops have made the prescient discovery that the best way to tackle organized crime is through their taxman. Meanwhile, the mob has supplanted the colorful old Sicilians with a metrosexual technocrat called "Mr. Brown" who appears to be nurturing a promising second career as a motivational speaker. The terribly suave Richard Conte is most in his element when expounding that the secret to success lies not just in a good manicure, but "per-sonality!"

In his celebrated taxonomy of film noir, Paul Schrader defines the genre's third phase as a moment when directors jettisoned the romantic conventions of the '40s in favor of a "painfully self-aware" frenzy of baroque disintegration. In The Big Combo, Joseph Lewis relentlessly draws our attention to the artificiality of his medium, both in his ingeniously sadistic manipulations of diegetic sound (torture by means of hearing aid), as well as the aggressively anti-naturalistic frontality of his mise-en-scène.

The film's original tag line read, "The most startling story the screen has ever dared reveal!" For a contemporary viewer, the film's most startling effect will be the constant prickle of déjà vu we experience, a déjà vu which points back to the films of the '40s, but also, jarringly, forwards to the sadistic and self-aware cinema of Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson and the Coen Brothers.

Theresa Schwartzman

Theodora Productions, Inc./ Security Pictures, Inc./Allied Artists Producer: Sidney Harmon Screenwriter: Philip Yordan Cinematographer: John Alton Editor: Robert Eisen Music: David Raksin Cast: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Earl Holliman, Lee Van Cleef, Ted de Corsia

35mm, 88 min.

Preserved from a 35mm acetate composite fine grain master positive. Laboratory services by YCM Laboratories. Audio Mechanics. OJ Audio. Special thanks to: TV Matters.

Preservation funded by American Movie Classics and The Film Foundation

The Enforcer (1951)

Directed by Bretaigne Windust, Raoul Walsh (uncredited)

Originally titled Murder, Inc.—after the film's notorious crime syndicate—The Enforcer aimed to introduce American moviegoers to the very idea of hired killing. The terms "contract" and "hit" are presented as arcane underworld terms, initially mystifying even district attorney Humphrey Bogart and his racket-busting colleagues. Inspired by true stories "ripped from the headlines," this classic film noir aspired to maximum authenticity. In his quest for street cred, producer Milton Sperling sought unknown actors for important roles, cast ex-hoodlums in bit parts, and hired experienced prosecutors as technical advisors.

Bogart stars opposite calculating kingpin Everett Sloane in a complicated investigation plot that plays out as a layered series of flashbacks-within-a-flashback. The convoluted story structure is combined with many other noir traits: low-key, laconic acting; a somber, fatalistic mood; and world-weary, cynical characters on both sides of the law. In paradigmatic noir fashion. Bogart eventually resorts to the same ruthlessness as his prey, promising "the chair" to uncooperative witnesses, and even threatening the family of a hit man (the unforgettable Zero Mastel) in one devastating scene.

Conflict apparently ruled on the closed set, as Bogart chafed under yet another stereotypical tough guy role, reminiscent of the characters he played at Warner Bros. in the '40s that he felt kept him from stretching as an actor. Meanwhile director Bretaigne Windust, a second choice after Felix Feist proved unavailable, reportedly clashed with Sperling during the shoot, so the producer brought in genre veteran Raoul Walsh (whose Pursued he'd supervised three years earlier) to complete the film.

–Ed Carter

United States Pictures, Inc./Warner Bros. Producer: Milton Sperling Screenwriter: Martin Rackin Cinematographer: Robert Burks Editor: Fred Allen Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mastel, Ted de Corsia. Everett Sloane

35mm, 87 min.

Preserved in cooperation with Republic Pictures from the 35mm nitrate original picture and soundtrack negatives Laboratory services by YCM Laboratories. Special thanks to: Mickey Murray.