‘First is first and second is nobody.’
Later, Bill Shankly motivated his Liverpool players by saying ‘First is first and second is nowhere.’
As the quote proves, Mr Brown was first before anyone, and that includes the sound-alikes in Reservoir Dogs. The Big Combo is a cheap B movie. One important encounter occurs in front of a curtain with no props other than chairs for the 2 actors to sit on. The climax of the movie happens in a private airport. There is no aeroplane, just fog, shadow, a searchlight and voices that echo. The hero, Inspector Leonard Diamond, leads Susan away from the corrupt gangster. Susan and Diamond walk into the fog that waits for them. There is no escape from doom, even with the one you love. Human nature is just too rotten.
Diamond is exceptional, hence his name, but he has strange motives. His desire to bring Mr Brown to justice is driven by jealousy and a desire to take Susan. There is also a damaged utopian in Diamond. When 4 teenagers lose money in one of the casinos of Mr Brown, they rob a petrol station and kill the attendant. Diamond blames Mr Brown for the murder. Diamond thinks that without Mr Brown the world might be clean but he also knows that Mr Brown ‘is not a man. He is an organisation.’
Richard Conte is perfect as Mr Brown. The actor relishes monstrosity and he makes clear the distinction between the unpleasant and evil. His henchman, Joe, tells lies, has ambition and is willing to murder yet he lacks the twisted dark inspiration of his boss. Mr Brown is the Big Combo. He is the man who wins all the power and he knows why. ‘Hate is the difference,’ he explains to the boxer that he abandons. The boxer has heart but what is needed in a competitive society driven by greed is hate. ‘Hate is what gets the girls,’ says Mr Brown.
And he is right because human nature is rotten. The Big Combo has 2 moments that suggest sexual fetishism. These have stylistic effect but they also reinforce the notion that we all walk the line between good and evil. The good stumble and slip, and the bad are on the other side pulling us across. Temptation is dark and oppressive because none of us know where our desires might lead. This threat is captured brilliantly by the superb gloomy photography of John Alton. When Mr Brown exhales tobacco smoke, it fills the screen. Love redeems except the price is usually high. The beautiful stripper, Rita, is murdered while she waits for Diamond, her unrequited love. The 2 gunmen are flawed but they possess intimacy and dependency. They both perish, caught by Mr Brown as they share naive trust. Diamond has been tortured by the control Mr Brown has over Susan. Even Mr Brown has previously been humiliated by a pitiless ex-wife.
Money and sex ruins us all including those that finish first.
If you want to read more about American culture click here.
Here are the opening credits of The Big Combo:
WARNING – We will return to those dark streets