Slanting shadows. Rectilinear staging. Fog and smoke. It is clear from the opening frames of Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo that we are firmly situated in the world of noir. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more perfect iteration of the genre. This 1955 gangland crime drama has it all: an obsessive detective, a swaggering crime boss, a self-destructive moll, and two dim-witted gunmen (played to a tee by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) who almost manage to steal the picture. "Almost" because no one could steal this picture from Richard Conte, who dominates every single one of his scenes as Mr. Brown, a suave gangland boss who attracts the ire of Cornel Wilde's tightly wound detective Leonard Diamond. The pugnacious detective vows to take down Brown, in part because he has the hots for Brown's stunning blonde girlfriend (an icy Jean Wallace). "I'm going to open you up and I'm going to operate," the stolid Diamond informs Brown during one of the many interrogation scenes that serve to advance the film's gossamer plot. But that's just one example of the kind of crackling, stylized dialogue that writer-producer Philip Yordan (who may have fronted for blacklisted writers) manages to cook up here. "First is first and second is nobody" is Brown's motto, and the would-be übermensch puts it into practice by rubbing out anyone who threatens to expose his role in a murder aboard a pleasure boat some years earlier. But the murder plot is small beans, as they say, in a film in which style trumps all. Restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Restoration funded by The Film Foundation.
Born in 1907, Joseph H. Lewis began his career editing Republic serials like The Miracle Rider (1935) and The Undersea Kingdom (1936). His directorial debut was the Universal western Courage of the West (1937). Lewis kept on directing westerns well into the television era, eventually earning the nickname "Wagon Wheel Joe" because of his habit of framing shots through the spokes of a wagon wheel. However, his movies somehow managed to stand out from others in the same class, largely because of an attention to visually stylistic and atmospheric touches not often seen in low-budget films. Lewis soon turned his attention to the thriller genre, directing Bela Lugosi in Monogram's The Invisible Ghost (1941) before making what many consider to be the apotheosis of low-budget noir filmmaking: Gun Crazy (1950), which was perhaps the director's finest 90 minutes. Towards the end of his life, Lewis received a 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He died in 2000.