AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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The Big Combo
Alternate Title: The Hoodlum
Director: Joseph Lewis (Dir)
Release Date:   13 Feb 1955
Production Date:   26 Aug--18 Sep 1954 at Kling Studios; addl seq late Nov 1954
Duration (in mins):   86 or 89
Duration (in feet):   7,992
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Cast:   Cornel Wilde (Lt. Leonard Diamond)  
    Richard Conte (Mr. Brown)  
    Brian Donlevy (Joe McClure)  
    Jean Wallace (Susan Lowell)  
    Robert Middleton (Capt. Jeff Peterson)  
    Lee Van Cleef (Fante)  
    Earl Holliman (Mingo)  
    Helen Walker (Alicia Brown)  
    Jay Adler (Sam Hill)  
    John Hoyt (Nils Dreyer)  
    Ted de Corsia (Ralph Bettini)  
    Helene Stanton (Rita)  
    Roy Gordon (Audubon)  
    Whit Bissell (Doctor)  
    Steve Mitchell (Bennie Smith)  
    Baynes Barron (Young detective)  
    James McCallion (Lab technician)  
    Tony Michaels (Photo technician)  
    Brian O'Hara (Malloy)  
    Rita Gould (Nurse)  
    Bruce Sharpe (Detective)  
    Michael Mark (Hotel clerk)  
    Philip Van Zandt (Mr. Jones)  
    Donna Drew (Miss Hartleby)  

Summary: One night, Fante and Mingo, minions of organized crime boss Mr. Brown, apprehend Susan Lowell, Brown’s girl friend, after she runs away from them. Upon catching Susan, they take her to a restaurant, where she collapses from an overdose of sleeping pills. Unknown to the criminals, they are followed by policeman Sam Hill, who retrieves Susan’s purse and takes it to police lieutenant Leonard Diamond. Diamond, who has just been chastised by Capt. Jeff Peterson for spending too much money on his relentless and unsuccessful pursuit of Brown, is in love with Susan, and immediately rushes to the hospital to question her. In order to keep Susan from being released to Brown, Diamond arrests her for attempting suicide, but when he questions the fatalistic young woman, all she tells him is that recently Brown was brooding in his apartment and writing the name “Alicia” on the foggy windows. Diamond’s interrogation is interrupted when Brown’s lawyer arrives with a writ to release Susan, and so Diamond decides to arrest all of Brown’s men and question them about Alicia. The underlings are baffled by their arrests, and only one, Brown’s right-hand man and former boss, Joe McClure, knows the meaning of the name. Brown agrees to take a lie detector test, but grows angry when Diamond mentions Alicia and the name Bettini, and storms out. That night, Peterson again reprimands Diamond for wasting police resources, and the depressed Diamond spends the evening with his sometime girl friend, burlesque dancer Rita. The next night, Rita tells Diamond she has heard that Brown has put out a contract on him, but Diamond shrugs off her concerns. As he is leaving the theater, Diamond is kidnapped by Mingo, Fante and McClure, who take him to the hidden cellar undernearth Brown’s hotel. There, when Diamond refuses to answer Brown’s questions, the gangster tortures him by inserting McClure’s hearing aid into his ear and holding the amplifier next to a blaring radio. Diamond passes out from the pain, and in order to make him look drunk, Brown forces him to drink an alcohol-laden bottle of hair tonic. Mingo and Fante then leave the staggering Diamond at Peterson’s apartment, where Diamond recovers and tells Peterson the story. Regretting his dismissal of Diamond’s obsession with Brown, Peterson recalls that seven years earlier, Ralph Bettini was the right-hand man of Grazzi, the former leader of the “big combination” now run by Brown. When Grazzi left New York for Sicily, Bettini disappeared, and Diamond speculates that he could provide useful information. Diamond locates the fearful old man, and Bettini relates that during the ocean voyage that took Grazzi to Sicily, Brown argued with his wife Alicia, a farm girl whose loathing of Brown’s violent lifestyle turned her into an alcoholic. Alicia disappeared, and Bettini, afraid that Brown had killed her, jumped ship and went into hiding. After Bettini remembers that the ship’s captain was named Nils Dreyer, Diamond goes to Dreyer’s antique shop but Dreyer refuses to divulge any information about Brown. After Diamond leaves, Dreyer is gunned down by McClure, who is then castigated by Brown for resorting to violence when he was instructed only to bring Dreyer in. The next day, Diamond searches Dreyer’s safe-deposit box and finds the negative of a photograph of Alicia with Brown and Grazzi, as well as a notation to refer to the 15 November 1946 log entry of the S.S. Grazzi . Diamond rushes to Dreyer’s shop, where he finds that Brown has obtained legal ownership of Dreyer’s papers and has burned the log. Diamond then finds Susan at a concert hall, where he gives her the photograph of Alicia and begs her to leave Brown before her life is endangered. After Alicia confronts Brown with the photograph, he gives her a recent picture of Alicia that he asserts was taken a month earlier on Grazzi’s estate. Later that night, while Rita waits for Diamond in his apartment, Brown orders Fante and Mingo to kill the policeman, and the two hoods shoot through the door and kill Rita without ever seeing her. Diamond is paralyzed with guilt over the tragedy until Susan comes to his office soon after with the new picture of Alicia. Police technicians examine the photograph and learn that instead of being taken in Sicily, it was taken at an upstate sanitarium. McClure follows Diamond to the sanitarium, where he finds Alicia, who was committed by Brown just after Grazzi left the country. Although Alicia claims that she does not know Brown, McClure rushes back to Mingo and Fante, and tells them that Brown killed Grazzi and has been pretending that Grazzi is alive in Sicily so that the other syndicate members will follow him. McClure tells them that if they kill Brown now, they will become the new leaders. He then drives Brown to a private airport, where Fante and Mingo are supposed to gun him down, but instead, the two hoods aim their guns at McClure. McClure begs for his life, but Brown merely removes his hearing aid before he is shot to death. At Diamond’s office, Alicia refuses to talk, even when Susan states that she will be testifying against Brown. Susan breaks down in tears upon seeing a photo of Rita’s bullet-riddled corpse, and Alicia finally agrees to testify. As she is leaving the office, however, she sees Brown waiting for her and goes into a state of shock. Soon after, McClure’s body is found, and Diamond realizes that Brown is becoming careless. Mingo and Fante hide in the hotel cellar for two days, until one evening, Brown brings them food and a box of money. When Fante opens the booby-trapped box, it explodes, killing him and mortally wounding Mingo. Diamond arrives before Mingo dies, and the gangster, furious over Fante’s death, implicates Brown. Before Diamond can find him, though, Brown kidnaps Susan and escapes to the airport. Diamond follows them, and with Susan’s help, captures the now-cowering Brown. Weary yet content, Diamond and Susan walk off together into the fog. 

Production Company: Theodora Productions, Inc.  
  Security Pictures, Inc.  
Distribution Company: Allied Artists Pictures Corp.  
Director: Joseph Lewis (Dir)
  Mack Wright (Asst dir)
  Robert Justman (Asst dir)
Producer: Sidney Harmon (Prod)
Writer: Philip Yordan ([Wrt] by)
Photography: John Alton (Dir of photog)
  Harry Sundby (Lighting)
Art Direction: Rudi Feld (Prod des)
Film Editor: Robert Eisen (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Jack McConaghy (Set dec)
Costumes: Don Loper (Jean Wallace's ward des)
Music: David Raksin (Mus)
  Jacob Gimbel (Piano soloist)
  Robert Tracy (Mus ed)
Sound: Earl Snyder (Sd)
Special Effects: Jack Rabin (Spec photog eff)
  Louis DeWitt (Spec photog eff)
Make Up: Carla Hadley (Hairstylist)
  Larry Butterworth (Makeup)
Production Misc: George Moskov (Prod mgr)
  Mary Chaffee (Set cont)
Country: United States
Language: English

Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Security Pictures, Inc. & Theodora Productions, Inc. 13/2/1955 dd/mm/yyyy LP4431

PCA NO: 17324
Physical Properties: Sd: RCA Sound System
  Widescreen/ratio: 1.85:1

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Crime
Subjects (Major): Gangsters
  Police detectives
Subjects (Minor): Antique dealers
  Attempted suicide
  Burlesque dancers
  Hearing aids
  Lie detectors and detection
  New York City
  Unrequited love

Note: The working title of this film was The Hoodlum . The film's opening title cards read: "Allied Artists Pictures Corporation presents Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace in The Big Combo by Philip Yordan." Although the Copyright Catalog incorrectly lists the film's copyright date as 13 Feb 1954, onscreen credits and the copyright record correctly list it as 13 Feb 1955. According to a 23 Jun 1954 LAT item, Yordan’s original screenplay “was in great demand with reported bidders, including United States Productions, Russ-Field, Frank P. Rosenberg and Edward L. Alperson.” The article claimed that Yordan had “turned down offers of as high as $75,000 plus a percentage” for his script.
       According to a 31 Aug 1954 DV news item, Jack Palance was originally cast as “Mr. Brown,” but was replaced by Richard Conte after Palance insisted that his then wife, Virginia Baker, be cast in the film. HR news items include Peter Ortiz, Charles Victor, Morgan Windbiel and Diana Darin (also known as Thelia Darin) in the cast, but their appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed. A Jun 1954 HR news item reported that the picture would be made in Eastman color, but the film was photographed in black-and-white. HR news items and production charts noted that the picture was shot at the Kling Studios, while a 23 Dec 1954 HR news item reported that the music scoring was done at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.
       The picture marked the first production of Theodora Productions, which was owned by actor Cornel Wilde and his wife, Jean Wallace, and Security Pictures,Inc. headed by Yordan and producer Sidney Harmon. A number of reviews singled out the scene during which “Lt. Leonard Diamond” is tortured by “Mr. Brown” for comment, with the DV reviewer terming it “particularly brutal” and the HR critic calling it “as nerve-wracking as anything seen on the recent screen.” 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   19 Feb 1955.   
Daily Variety   31 Aug 1954.   
Daily Variety   10 Feb 55   p. 3.
Film Daily   17 Feb 55   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   23 Jun 1954   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   9 Jul 1954   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   28 Jul 1954   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   24 Aug 1954   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   3 Sep 1954   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   13 Sep 1954   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Sep 1954   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Sep 1954   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   23 Sep 1954   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Nov 1954   p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter   23 Dec 1954   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Feb 55   p. 3.
Los Angeles Times   23 Jun 1954.   
Los Angeles Times   24 Mar 1955.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   19 Feb 55   p. 329.
New York Times   1 Sep 1954.   
New York Times   26 Mar 55   p. 13.
Variety   16 Feb 55   p. 16.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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