The Seventh Calvary peaks early, with a brilliant scene where Randolph Scott’s calvary captain returns from retrieving his new bride only to find an empty relic of Manifest Destiny, a deserted fort engulfed by forest and snow peaks. Scott’s men have been slaughtered along with Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, leaving him outcast in the eyes of his surviving superiors as a dishonorable absentee of war. It’s a haunting moment and one of the best the genre has to offer; a long glance at “civilized” man realizing his mortality in the face an unrelenting natural solitude. Unfortunately, Lewis’ film bogs down in petty bickering and melodrama, culminating in a ridiculous, almost insulting finale. I’m still not convinced of Lewis’ stature as a major director, now having been disappointed with three of his supposed “best films.”
I don’t get the critical admiration for director Joseph H. Lewis. Both of his so-called great films, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, are overtly instinctual and lack any complexity when it comes to character psychology. Gun Crazy‘s protagonist pair drift along aimlessly through a cliched “couple on the lamb” story. The Big Combo is even less impressive. More a made for TV movie than hard-core Noir, Lewis’ film was released the same year as Robert Aldrich’s masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, but has none of that film’s formidable ideas about Noir psychosis or brutality. It contains scene after scene of simply motivated and repetitive action, specifically concerning cop Cornel Wilde’s Det. Diamond investigating bad guy gangster Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown for a number of crimes. Caught in the middle are the usual subjects – the Dame, the Police Captain, the Gun Mole, and the Innocent Female Bystander. The main problem is Lewis’ handling of pacing which stems from the utter banality in character motivation. The first time we meet Diamond, his Captain accuses him of falling in love with Brown’s girlfriend, but Diamond hasn’t ever had contact with the girl, so this assertion has no impact. This plot contrivance is created just to create tension, not out of any adherence to story. As Diamond’s investigation gets more and more loose, Brown becomes less and less believable as a villain. He acts Machiavellian, but his greatest success is surrounding himself with morons. Who really cares when he starts killing them off, nor when he finally breaks down like the child he is during the final real. The Big Combo wants to be a stylish (John Alton’s dependable b/w photography is great) genre piece, but because of it’s lack of earned friction, never transcends it’s simplistic vision of Noir sensibility. A lame duck in a pond of so much beautiful darkness (see Lang, Preminger, Tournier, or Aldrich for the best Noir).