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AUGUST 2, 1999: 

The Big Combo

D: Joseph H. Lewis (1955) with Cornel Wilde, Lee Van Cleef, Richard Conte, Jean Wallace, Brian Donlevy, Earl Holliman.

Detective Leonard Diamond (Wilde) has an axe to grind with mobster Mr. Brown (Conte) but lacks hard evidence to pin on him. Under pressure to wrap up the investigation, Diamond becomes more determined to nail Brown and resorts to harassment and false arrests, to which Brown responds with torture and murder. He sends his two hit men (Holliman and Van Cleef) over to Diamond's apartment with a machine gun, but they kill Diamond's part-time girlfriend instead. Ravaged by guilt ("I used her like a pair of gloves"), Diamond presses even harder on Brown's case. Director Lewis is usually remembered for the classic Gun Crazy in terms of his film noir output, but The Big Combo is an equally brilliant piece of work. As in that earlier film, sex and violence are inextricably linked; the themes give both films a feel that is far ahead of its time. In a subplot, Brown has captivated a young society woman (Wallace) who is also the object of Diamond's attentions. Despite her self-loathing at being involved with a mobster, she keeps coming back to his arms; the air of sexual frustration and guilt parallels that of Gun Crazy. There is one romantic encounter between them that is so suggestive, it's surprising it got past the censor. Husband Wilde was sent off by director Lewis to shoot second unit footage for this scene in which his real-life wife Wallace is seduced by Conde. The two hit men hint at a homosexual relationship that is sublimated in their brutal deeds. As a later-period noir, The Big Combo points toward themes that would prevail in Fifties TV cop shows and latter-day crime films, but the direction and camerawork point toward the earlier noir years. Cinematographer John Alton made nearly every shot into an expressionist classic, filled with oblique angles and shadows that fragment the frame; the extremes of Alton's work surpass his earlier films such as Border Incident (1949), T-Men (1947), or He Walked by Night (1948). Indeed, it's hard to think of a movie that points up the noir visual style more thoroughly than this one. The torture-by-hearing-aid (followed by torture-with-hair-tonic) scene in particular is one that shouldn't be missed. Lewis went on to direct a number of Westerns as well as episodes for the TV series Bonanza, The Rifleman, and Branded. -- Jerry Renshaw

Truck Turner

D: Jonathan Kaplan (1974) with Isaac Hayes, Alan Weeks, Yaphet Kotto, Scatman Crothers, Nichelle Nichols, Annazette Chase.

Truck Turner (Hayes) is a skip tracer (aka bounty hunter) who, along with his partner Jerry (Weeks), is assigned to track down a pimp named Gator. After a lengthy car chase (filled with continuity glitches), Gator is killed by the pair, turning them into the sworn enemies of madam Dorinda (Nichols), who puts a price on their heads among the pimp world. After Turner's partner is gunned down, it's an all-out war between Turner and pimp kingpin Blue (Kotto). It's a shame that Hayes didn't have more leading roles over the years, because he excels in Truck Turner. Skip tracers are usually regarded as rather seedy characters, and Turner is no exception, coming across as a mixture of Phillip Marlowe and Jim Rockford. His on-again, off-again romance with his girlfriend (Chase) is interrupted by her stays in jail; to get her out of the picture when the going gets rough, he sets her up on a shoplifting charge! Partner Jerry, though not as big as Truck, does his part to kick asses and take names when the time comes, and the chemistry between the two is totally believable. There's no fancy kung fu here, though; the two just use some good old-fashioned fisticuffs. Crothers nearly steals the show as a semi-retired pimp and has some of the best lines in reference to Blue: "He's a dog among pimps"; "There's a pimp civil war comin'"; "They just don't make pimps like they used to." Hard-core Trekkies may never recover from seeing Nichols as a foul-mouthed, sexy madam, wearing low-cut halter jumpsuits and the like. This is a film that never takes itself too seriously and is a delight to watch. It should be included among blaxploitation classics but usually isn't. Director Kaplan, a student of Martin Scorsese, is another Roger Corman graduate who began with such exploitation fare as The Student Teachers, The Slams, and Night Call Nurses before graduating to such respectable second-string exploitation fare as the classic Over the Edge (1979), White Line Fever (1975), and Heart Like a Wheel (1983). He almost broke into the big time with a few films, most notably The Accused (1988), which won Jodie Foster an Academy Award. The mixed box office performance of films like Love Field and Bad Girls found him directing TV movies and multiple episodes of ER. He returns to the big screen this summer with Broke Down Palace. -- Jerry Renshaw

All That Heaven Allows

D: Douglas Sirk (1955) with Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Grey, Gloria Talbott.

I introduced this masterpiece of Sirk's (others include Written on the Wind [1957] and Imitation of Life [1959]) the other night as part of the Austin Film Society's summer tribute to George Morris at the Texas Union. Until about 30 years ago, film critics and writers tended not to take melodrama terribly seriously, dismissing the movies as weepies or women's films. The critical re-evaluation of Sirk's work, in particular, has helped this to change. The charge has been lead not just by critics, who discovered in his melodramas fascinatingly rich studies of family and society, but also by filmmakers. As much as anyone, Rainer Werner Fassbinder argued for the compelling social drama at the heart of melodrama (witness Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [1974], his remake of this film). Widower Wyman falls for hunk gardener Hudson, and no one can handle it -- not family, not friends, not acquaintances. Riding high on the success of Magnificent Obsession [1954], Sirk reunited the core cast of Wyman, Hudson, and Moorehead for this deeply hued take on the rules and ways of middle-class life. Costumes, sets, camera angles, and cutting were all used to brilliant effect by Sirk. This film is a stunning whole of carefully orchestrated parts, perhaps none so startling as his perverse and powerful use of color.All That Heaven Allows is a distorted American valentine from the heart of the Fifties. -- Louis Black

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