The Big Combo (1955)

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in Cinema (U.S.), v.7, n.1, Fall 1971, pp.46-47. It was part of a special Joseph H. Lewis section the editor, Paul Schrader, and Rick Thompson organized around a Peter Bogdanovich interview. Schrader’s piece was devoted to Gun Crazy.

* * *

Of his early films (before My Name Is Julia Ross, 1945) I have seen only two. The Boss of Hangtown Mesa (1942) is a craftsmanlike job on the standard Johnny Mack Brown-Fuzzy Knight western of the period, with a few ambitious camera movements. Certainly each set-up is composed carefully; even the obligatory tracking-with-riders shots are executed and edited into the flow crisply, catching the sense-the impression, as Lewis would say-of those headlong rushes nearly as successfully as in the landrush scene of William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds (1925). The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) operates on a zombie level between Ulmer’s perversely minimal Club Havana (1946) and Buñuel’s compulsively catatonic movies about people caught in the same room (El Angel Exterminador/Exterminating Angel, 1962) or the same black joke over and over (Nazarin, 1958). Largely through camera position and by starting shots on an empty set and then moving characters in during the shot, Lewis imbues a single ritzy 1940s-deco set with more menacing meaning than anything else in the film.

Lewis found his métier in the new popularity of the film noir. From Julia Ross on, all his successful films were either outright films noir (Gun Crazy, 1949; Undercover Man, 1949; Lady Without A Passport, 1950; The Big Combo, 1955), or contained maudit/noir elements (So Dark The Night, 1946; Desperate Search, 1952; Cry of the Hunted, 1953; A Lawless Street, 1955; The Halliday Brand, 1957; Terror in a Texas Town, 1958) (1). Upon these films-of varying quality, but none without interest-Lewis’s reputation rests. Though it seems difficult to claim for Lewis a consistently black vision, his visual style contained several elements conducive to the genre: a taste for Bazinian depth of focus and for its temporal twin, the long take; for camera movement (relativity) rather than alternating static cuts (isolated specificity); for cinematographers with dramatic, concrete styles, often harshly black-and-white; for location shooting, or failing that, for modestly scaled back-lot work stressing character/environment interfaces rather than explicit spectacle.

My Name Is Julia Ross and So Dark The Night are completely successful as narrative exercises. The first is a modern Gothic in the manner of Rebecca (1940); the second an offbeat Simenon-type French crime story vaguely reminiscent of Voice in the Wind (1944, Arthur Ripley)-they share a strong deterministic current-but much better than the Ripley film.

Both Lewis films show a sharp edge on the director’s part, but not yet the sour attitude of full film noir. The Swordsman (1947) is a Scottish clan costumer, a western in disguise, with a few striking shots, period. The Return of October (1949) is a cute script (by comedy specialists Melvin Frank and Norman Panama) about a girl’s beloved uncle who dies and comes back as a racehorse, with Glenn Ford as the psychology professor who starts out using the girl as a case history and ends up marrying her. Lewis does not pull off the required miracle.

Undercover Man is another story. Ford again plays the lead as a combination investigative accountant and hard-boiled detective for the Treasury Department who eventually cracks the syndicate and sends the Big Man up. In addition to the story line as described, Lewis injects a lot of interest into the relationship between Ford and his wife (Nina Foch). Lewis’s consistent response to noir genre films is to play down generic concerns and play up sex relationships and the role of women moving behind or in counterpoint to the action. At the end of the wife’s first scene with Ford and his two colleagues, she fills the left frame, looking across to the right, lit very white, looming large in medium close-up, while the three men stand looking at her from deep in the black background, the long focus serving to emphasize the spatial distance, and metaphorically the emotional dynamic, of the set-up.

Undercover Man shows the Lewis hero well, too. Though strange female parts taper off as film noir declines as a genre (a generic element Lewis seized upon as being to his personal taste) his hero figure continues through to his last film, Terror in a Texas Town. Basically, he is a guy who can take it; that is his prime characteristic. Sometimes he has Right on his side, sometimes not, but he is a survivor (even to surviving death itself in A Lawless Street). This tenacity is often stretched to cover a personal or professional commitment tending toward obsessive proportions as when the hero doggedly stalks past the normal commonsense cut-off point. Robert Mundy’s remarks on the relation of characters to action in Lewis are apt (2). Undercover Man‘s final action scene is brilliant, the equal of any such scene anywhere. It satisfies the basic documentary-expository requirements of action sequences, then proceeds to play with point-of-view, shifting over from a general POV with the hero to a series of shots from the POV of the unsuccessful assailant. The jagged rhythm and muscular framing of the alley’s edges to contain the on-rushing car, and the disappearance of Ford and his final, revelatory reappearance are excellent. As a whole, the film rates well in relation to its fraternity-The Big Heat (1953), The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), Phil Karlson’s syndicate films.

Gun Crazy is regarded as the best film Lewis made, although it is not as ambitious or successful formally as The Big Combo. In many ways, Gun Crazy is Lewis’s most simple work, and so his most consistent. The integration of character and action, and the operation of l’amour fou in the film are the clearest realizations of these elements which underlie other Lewis films. The long take sequences, the cramped interior shooting, the staging of a scene in which the characters walk away from the camera, turn their backs to the screen and continue their dialogue, and the constant return to John Dall’s face as the basic image and motif of the film, can all be seen as extremely influential pre-nouvelle vague elements. French writing on the film has been the most perceptive and the most useful.

Gun Crazy, an admirable film, which alone of all cinema clearly marks the road which leads from l’amour fou to la revolte folle.

– Ado Kyrou (3)

Gun Crazy deserves a place by itself. First, because it’s a nearly unclassifiable work. Gangster film? But here the gang is reduced to the minimum, to the association of two murderers. Criminal psychology film? It contrasts absolutely with the tone of that genre. Besides, the ambivalence of the story permits two very different interpretations. In effect, it’s a question of a man with a mania for guns and his desperate attempts to conquer his virility through means other than murder. His companion, who plays the determining role in their career outside the law, is a splendid specimen of bitch. She has a strong preference for pants or cowboy outfits, and polarizes the aggression of the couple. The final episode, in the marsh, becomes an avenging execution by her lover: he prefers her death to that of the sheriff, his boyhood friend, whom she is about to shoot.

But rather than consider Gun Crazy as a story with an edifying conclusion, supported by pathological causes-as we appear to be invited to do-we prefer.to see in it one of the rarest contemporary illustrations of L’AMOUR FOU (in all senses of the word, of course) which, according to André Breton, “takes” here “ALL THE POWER”. Gun Crazy would then appear to be a kind of Golden Age of American film noir.

Could one say that the poetry misleads one a little? But everything is done here, visibly, so that the viewer, oblivious of his involvement with murderers, passes to the other side of the barricades with John Dall and Peggy Cummins. The memory of their death immediately joins the recollection of the deaths of other celebrated lovers in cinema and literature. Dall, throwing out his last scruples, becomes an outlaw. This is so as to be welcomed back by a triumphant woman stretched out on the bed, wearing only stockings and a robe. Taken with a veritable frenzy of passion, she waits in silence, nostrils quivering and mouth parted, for the embrace of her lover; their attitude-they seem to want to snap each other up voraciously-shows a singular desire. And one understands, in the presence of such consuming passions, how they could have lost their senses of traditional morality.

– Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton (4)

Lewis instinctively casts his films in the form of hunter-hunted chases, though they could just as easily have been framed by images of warring groups evenly arrayed against each other, or of a hero beset on all sides by hostile powers (Karlson’s paranoid vision is a good contrast), or even the gutter equality of people with corruption in common (Fuller). Lady Without A Passport is such a film, memorable for its heavy atmosphere of rancid romanticism overlaying intrigue trying hard to be sordid. John Hodiak is a cop assigned to arrest Hedy Lamarr; he meets her for the first time and writes out his letter of resignation from the force, giving as his reason: “I am in love.” (They become the pursued).

What separates Lewis from an all-out fou director like Fuller is his downplayed ease with genre material (acquired, perhaps, between 1937 and 1942, when he made 12 B westerns-along with 7 other B pictures-for PRC, Universal and Columbia). Lewis’s scripts abound in outrageous elements or possibilities, but he rarely calls attention to them, let alone exploiting them to their limits or conclusions. He prefers to remain comfortably within the bounds of his genres, to suggest and to underplay. In Undercover Man, he doesn’t push the softness in Glenn Ford represented by his wife. In Passport, he’s making an Ulmer movie but doesn’t surrender to its possibilities for delirium as Ulmer would. In Retreat Hell! (1951), the story of a man recalled for duty in the Korean war and rendered neurotic by his attachment to his family and resentment at military circumstances, Lewis drops the logical line of that premise to resolve things by the combat genre book. This family-back-home-driven war film is similar to Allan Dwan’s Hold Back The Night (1956), but more concerned with developing the dark side of its theme. Desperate Search hovers on the brink. A flyer and his earthbound wife are joined by his flying ex-wife to search for his kids by the first marriage who are lost in the Canadian wilderness. The sexual problems of the grown-ups are suggested as mirroring the problems of the lost boy and girl. Jane Greer (from Out of the Past, 1947, here playing the ex-wive aviatrix) has an entrance hard to forget: a seaplane lands on the lake, taxis over to the dock. Clamshell doors atop the nose of the fuselage open and up pops Greer, a flying Venus on the half-shell. Cry of the Hunted, with a sympathetic cop chasing a sympathetic escaped convict from California into the Louisiana swamps, shows the tensions of the other films. It also has a surreal dream sequence which underlines the love-hate magnetism that draws the cop after the fugitive, and a script which creates a Chinese boxes puzzle of moral commitments and debts; it succeeds in playing off futility and unthinking passion, and has a fine William Conrad part as the voice of normal prudence (ignored).

The Big Combo is the most completely, evenly, successfully realized of all Lewis films. If it does not reach the archetypical peaks of Gun Crazy, it also does not break down in the memory into sequences and transitions. The style is much blacker and more dramatic, photographed by John Alton (Charles Bitsch in Cahiers ignored the rest of the film and reviewed Alton) and written by Philip Yordan (whoever that might have been on the day). Standing in contrast to the shadows and submerged, angular forms of the film, the mute object which the cop and his enemy the crook both worship is blonde Jean Wallace. Her face is used as Dall’s is in Gun Crazy, but much more abstractly: stripped of character status, she becomes the visual motif-turned-icon in the film. With perfect visual logic, the sole pillar of light throughout the film, she resolves its conclusion by pointing out (literally, metaphorically) one of the two rivals with a spotlight on a darkened airfield (bitter cousin to Casablanca, 1942).

Lewis films have quite brutal sequences, often but not always elaborate fistfights. In The Big Combo, mob mastermind Richard Conte tortures hero Cornel Wilde by sticking thug Brian Donleavy’s hearing aid into Wilde’s ear, cranking it up to the maximum setting, and yelling into it. We see expressions of agony on Wilde’s face, but Lewis chooses not to let us hear a subjective representation of the sound. At the conclusion of the film, Conte decides Donleavy has sold him out (or is about to), so he prudently decides to machinegun Donleavy. Donleavy begs for his life. Conte reassures him: “You won’t hear the bullets”, rips Donleavy’s hearing aid from his ear, and shoots. We see the machine gun in medium close-up bucking, nice high contrast background shadow and dancing flame from the gun muzzle-but the soundtrack is absolutely silent, presumably what Donleavy heard (or didn’t hear). This pair of violent flourishes is frequently cited in catalogues of ingenious violence and sadism but is raised here for what it shows about Lewis’s creative restraint.

A Lawless Street, undoubtedly the weirdest of the Randolph Scott-Harry Joe Brown western series (the second weirdest is also by Lewis: Seventh Cavalry), is a feeble-minded member of the John Ford western family that escaped from the asylum and, naturally, teamed up with Joseph H. Lewis. The script has impossible dialogue-even Scott’s mellow, Old Virginia lilt can’t smooth out the lines-but somewhere along the way there hatched a background vision of civil order and disruption more commonly found in Ford. Playing off that theme, Lewis uses the camera movements, strangely underemphasized cross-cutting, and pacing of performances to create an unshakeable atmosphere of diurnal rhythm. Throughout the film, this framework of the daily routine overpowers all the strikingly dramatic events it contains: a cruel fistfight between the sheriff (Scott) and a giant; the arrival and performance of the sheriff’s Jenny Lind-like old flame (Angela Lansbury); the death and resurrection of Scott himself; and wide-open civil anarchy following his death to rival any Shakespearean image of a world in disorder.

Terror in a Texas Town, Lewis’s last film, is very evenly styled with the tensed-up spareness of Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (1955). Lewis outdoes Ulmer while remaining true to the characteristics of his earlier films. He takes a film which is ostensibly a mild switch on the avenge-my-father’s-death western (but which is in reality the elephant’s graveyard of a century’s worth of dumb Swede jokes) and, on the strength of Sterling Hayden’s performance, quietly underplays the mise en scène with great authority right through to the finish. Hayden, the revenger, is not a westerner: he’s a Scandinavian seaman, a whaler. Lewis embraces his last opportunity, not letting an ounce of bizarreness evaporate: he builds carefully to the climax and does not shrink from the final confrontation on the main street – between a snaky mean gunman with a .45 and Hayden, no gun, just his harpoon.

It is clear why Lewis’s career is most popular with image-oriented, and particularly surrealist, critics. What separates Lewis from an auteur like Siodmak is a consistent style. Lewis is extremely accomplished and applies fresh solutions to stock scenes but, unlike Preminger, for instance, no consistent style of mise en scène is apparent, no Lewis look or Lewis POV or Lewis conceptual slant that can be spotted from film to film (5). And, in a chicken-or-the-egg circle, this separates him from the primary operation of authorship criticism on American directors: the analysis of consistent visual style to correlate it directly with consistent thematic vision (6). Lewis has areas of thematic interest or sensitivity, but he seems passive insofar as advancing a strong world-view of his own-he blends in with each film until you can only see the film.

Endnotes

  1. A pocket French dictionary definition for “maudit” provides: cursed, accursed, execrable, damnable. It came into use in post-World War II French (and then, French-influenced) film commentary to designate disreputable films, those rejected by respectable standards, etc. It was a word applied to avant-garde work that was weird or extreme by Jean Cocteau at one point.
  2. Robert Mundy, “Joseph H. Lewis 2”, Cinema (U.S.) v.7, n.1, Fall 1971, p.45: “.behaviour finds its truest expression during action scenes”.
  3. Ado Kyrou, Le Surrealisme au Cinema, Editions Arcanes: Paris, 1953, p.136
  4. Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama du Film Noir Americain, Paris: Editions du Minuit, 1955, pp.117-119
  5. A look at a good Lewis filmography will show a career trajectory hardly conducive to continuity, long-term collaborations, studio residencies, or any of the other career perks that can provide stability.
  6. From the perspective of the year 2000, this seems like a good formulation of the simultaneous strength and crippling blindspot of authorship criticism in 1971.

About The Author

Rick Thompson co-edits Screening the Past; his interviews with Samuel Fuller appeared in Film Comment and Movietone News c. 1976.