The film stars Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte and Brian Donlevy, as well as Jean Wallace, who was Wilde's wife at the time. It also included the final screen appearance of actress Helen Walker.
Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is on a personal crusade to bring down sadistic gangster Mr. Brown. He's also dangerously obsessed with Brown's girlfriend, the suicidal Susan Lowell. His main objective as a detective is to uncover what happened to a woman called "Alicia" from the crime boss's past.
Mr. Brown, his second-in-command McClure and thugs Fante and Mingo kidnap and torture the lieutenant, then pour a bottle of alcohol-based hair tonic down his throat before letting him go. Diamond eventually learns through one of Brown's past accomplices that Alicia was actually Brown's wife. The accomplice suspects that Alicia was sent away to Sicily with former mob boss Grazzi, then murdered, tied to the boat's anchor and permanently submerged.
Diamond questions a Swede named Dreyer, who was the skipper of that boat (but now operates an antiques store as a front, bankrolled by Brown). Dreyer denies involvement, but this doesn't prevent him from being murdered by McClure within seconds after he leaves the shop.
Diamond tries to persuade Susan to leave Brown and admits he might be in love with her. He shows her a photo of Brown, Alicia and Grazzi together on the boat. Susan finally confronts Brown about his wife and is told she is still alive in Sicily, Italy, living with Grazzi.
Brown next orders a hit on Diamond. However, when his gunmen Fante and Mingo go to Diamond's apartment, they mistakenly shoot and kill the cop's burlesque dancer girlfriend Rita instead. Diamond sees an up-to-date photo of Alicia but realizes it wasn't taken in Sicily (since there's snow on the ground). This leads Diamond to suspect Brown didn't kill Alicia but his boss Grazzi instead. Diamond is able to track Alicia to a sanitarium, where she is staying under another name. He asks for her help.
Brown's right-hand man, McClure, wants to take over. He plots with Fante and Mingo to ambush Mr. Brown, but ends up getting killed himself because they are loyal to the boss.
At police headquarters, Brown shows up with a writ of habeas corpus, effectively preventing Alicia to testify against her husband. Brown also brings a big stash of "money" to Fante and Mingo while they are hiding out from the police, but the box turns out to contain a bomb that apparently kills both.
Brown shoots the lieutenant's partner Sam and kidnaps Susan, planning to fly away to safety. Diamond finds a witness that could finally nail the elusive gangster—Mingo, who survived the blast and confesses, sobbing over the body of his cohort, that Brown was behind it all. Alicia is able to help Diamond figure out where Brown was likely to take Susan, a private airport where Brown intends to board a getaway plane.
However, the plane doesn't show up and the film climaxes in a foggy airplane hangar shootout. Susan shines a bright light in Brown's eyes and the lieutenant places him under arrest. The last scene shows the silhouetted figures of Diamond and Susan in the fog, considered to be one of the iconic images of film noir.Cornel Wilde as Police Lt. Leonard Diamond
Richard Conte as Mr. Brown
Brian Donlevy as Joe McClure
Jean Wallace as Susan Lowell
Robert Middleton as Police Capt. Peterson
Lee Van Cleef as Fante
Earl Holliman as Mingo
Helen Walker as Alicia Brown
Jay Adler as Sam Hill
John Hoyt as Nils Dreyer
Ted de Corsia as Bettini
Helene Stanton as Rita
Roy Gordon as Audubon
Whit Bissell as Doctor (scenes deleted) (as Whit Bissel)
Steve Michaell as Bennie Smith - Boxer
Baynes Barron as Young Detective
James McCallion as Frank - Technician
Tony Michaels as Photo Technician
Brian O'Hara as Attorney Malloy
Bruce Sharpe Detective
Michael Mark as Fred - Hotel Clerk
Philip Van Zandt as Mr. Jones (scenes deleted)
Donna Drew as Miss Hartleby
The film was a co production between Theodora, the production company of Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace, and Security, a company of Phil Yordan and Sidney Harmon. It was shot in 26 days.
Reviews of the movie today are mostly positive. Chris Dashiell on the website CineScene finds the dialogue "run of the mill" but praises the film's director, writing that "Lewis had a remarkable ability to infuse poetry into the most banal material, and The Big Combo is one of his best efforts... it's not as startlingly inventive as Lewis's best film, Gun Crazy (1949), but it's a quality B-film, satisfying and dark."
The staff at Variety magazine liked the film's direction, music and photography, despite "a rambling, not-too-credible plot." They wrote, "Performances are in keeping with the bare-knuckle direction by Joseph Lewis and, on that score, are good. Low-key photography by John Alton, one of his best, and a jazz-derived score by David Raksin with solo piano by Jacob Gimpel are in keeping with the film's tough mood."
Film critic Ed Gonzalez lauded the film in his review, writing, "Shadows and lies are the stars of The Big Combo, a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented texture of a spider's web ... John Alton's lush camera work is so dominant here you wouldn't know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesn't have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the director's Gun Crazy, but that's no loss given this film's richer returns. The set-pieces are fierce, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallace's performance—a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil—is one of noir's great unheralded triumphs."
Critics have compared the quality of The Big Combo to Fritz Lang's The Big Heat as one of the great film noir detective classics in terms of style.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 91% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on eleven reviews.
Most film noir movies feature scores that are orchestral (strings). In contrast, The Big Combo is one of few that has a brass (trumpets, saxophones, etc.) score.