The Big Combo, Happy Anniversary! Premiered February 13th, 1955?


First as to date, I should begin by saying that on Sunday, February 13th, 1955, The Big Combo premiered in Japan and the United States. But, that is incorrect. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has the Los Angeles release date as March 23, 1955.[1] The New York opening was on March 25, at the Palace Theatre.[2] The most telling factoid with regards to the premiere of, The Big Combo is the lack of ads in newspapers; there are simply none prior to the end of March, 1955; another false grand opening date in the annals of Hollywood history. Most cities saw the feature beginning on Sunday, March 27, 1955 or later; as seen by the advertising. The final piece of our premiere puzzle is found on the, Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC, which aired on Sunday, March 20, 1955, with Cornel Wilde and wife Jean Wallace, performing a scene from, The Big Combo; the introductory tag was, “a forthcoming motion picture.”[3]

The_Anniston_Star_ Anniston, Alabama Sun__Mar_27__1955_

Anniston Star, Anniston, Alabama, March 27, 1955

The_Daily_Mail_ Hagerstown, Maryland Sat__Mar_26__1955_

Daily Mail, Hagerstown, Maryland, March 26, 1955



The Big Combo was directed by the master-of-style Joseph H. Lewis, photography by near-legendary-cinematographer John Alton, written by Philip Yordan (read further on Yordan from The Film Noir Foundation), music by David Raksin and starring: Cornel Wilde (one of my favorite actors), Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman.

Some paths of history are missed; often they are made, with just a small, slight misstep making the difference, especially in cinematic history. That is the case with, The Big Combo, which originally had Wilde and Jack Palance (as Mr. Brown, the role Richard Conte would play) slated to engage each other; oh, what could have been![4] Palance was on a personal hot-streak with, Man in the Attic, already released and Sign of the Pagan and The Silver Chalice, each in the can. As late as August 22, 1954, Palance was still set to co-star with filming to begin on the 26th for, Combo.[5] The stump in the ground with regards to Palance, evidently was attitude, his wife Virginia Baker, tested for a part in the film and was turned down;[6] prior to the first day of shooting, the decision was made to go with Conte instead of Palance.

Filming was well under way and the postulations were still being posed about Palance and his wife Baker appearing in, Combo; although most of her scenes would have been with Cornel Wilde.[7] It is possible that Palance would have had problems with believability in the Brown role, with regards to the need of smoothness and a charming demeanor, thereby able to attract the character of Susan, played by Jean Wallace (Mrs. Cornel Wilde). Reportedly, Palance was raising eyebrows with outbursts of anger and temperament during rehearsals for, The Big Combo.[8] This explanation of Palance being temperamental seems more likely (at least to me) instead of the account that director Joseph Lewis, saying that it was because Palance wanted to take the character of Brown in a different direction and manner.[9]

Not much liked by the New York Times  or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops but the Village Voice liked the film and is now regarded by a majority of critics  as a Film-Noir classic, although, some are only willing to assign it as a Top-Notch B-Movie, yet, others see it as a Wannabe-Classic. As for me, I think The Big Combo is a jazzy piece of film-making, full of riffs, darkening tones and sultry voices with pulsations galore that make the heart race. The Big Combo is available on Blu-Ray or DVD.


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By C. S. Williams


[1] Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

[2] New York Times (New York, New York) March 26, 1955

[3] La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wisconsin) March 20, 1955

[4] Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) August 30, 1954

Motion Picture Daily, July 28, 1954

Film Bulletin, August 23, 1954

[5] Motion Picture Daily, August 20, 1954

Film Bulletin, August 22, 1954

[6] Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) August 30, 1954

[7] Lethbridge Herald (Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada) September 30, 1954

[8] Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) August 13, 1954

[9] TCM


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