Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Big Steal (1949)

Posted by Gary Deane

The Big Steal’, starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer and scripted by Geoffrey Holmes (Daniel Mainwaring) often appears to be best known and least admired for what it isn’t, namely ‘Out of the Past’.

The latter, released in 1947 - starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer and scripted by Geoffrey Holmes - is regarded as an elegant and sublime evocation of noir. The Big Steal is hardly referenced and not much regarded at all.

Standing in the shadow of ‘Out of the Past’, it’s understandable that the ‘The Big Steal’ seems overlooked and/ or underestimated. At just 71 minutes long, it’s a much shorter, slighter movie and nothing like as darkly noir nor as ‘memorable’.

However, slighter doesn’t mean lesser as far as the pleasure that can be had from it. Even if it is the sorry stepchild of the “Out of the Past’, ‘The Big Steal’ is a very easy film to like.

For a start, it’s unabashed fun. Even Bosley Crowther, the high-toned windbag who held the film desk forever at the New York Times found the movie amiable. Here’s an excerpt from his especially garrulous review, July 11, 1949:

‘A breath-taking scenic excursion across the landscape of Mexico…through villages, on lovely open roads and over towering mountains on switchback highways at a fast and sizzling pace’.

‘Seems that a certain tricky fellow, whom Patric Knowles suavely enacts, is trying to escape into the interior of Mexico from Vera Cruz with a load of swag. Seems that his stubborn pursuer is a curious laconic gent played by Robert Mitchum who is accompanied by a lady, prettily played by Jane Greer. Seems that another desperate party, William Bendix is after both and a Mexican police inspector, Ramon Novarro is tailing the lot’.

‘Just where and why they are fleeing is rather loosely and unsatisfactorily explained but obviously they are not friendly people for whenever any of them get together they usually fight. But that is not important and we casually advise that you try not to follow too closely the involution of the plot’.

Well, there you have it. He’s done up the story, set the scene, captured the mood, and casually advised. Why, I could stop right here.

Except there’s further a job to be done and that’s to plead a decent case for ‘The Big Steal’ as a film noir - at least enough of one for it to be able to sit facing the Blackboard without shame.

Let’s start with the issue of ‘The Big Steal’s easy disposition.

Though it’s true that the movie has a much sunnier way about it than you would expect to find in noir, there’s also some really bad stuff going on here.

Lt. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) has been framed for a robbery and is in pursuit of the real thief, Jim Fiske (Knowles). The problem is that Halliday too is now on the run, from his senior officer, Cpt. Vincent Blake (Bendix) whose reasons for chasing Halliday turn out to be not as straightforward as they seem.

Ultimately, it’s going to be Blake’s duplicity and betrayal that qualify the movie as solid noir. But meanwhile, the disillusioned Halliday proves himself to be no saint as he goes around dishing out the mayhem.

The ‘Big Steal’ also covers some of the same disarranged narrative and thematic territory as a number of later films by its director, Don Siegel. In both ‘Madigan’ and ‘Dirty Harry’, for example, cops are driven to defy institutional authority and constraints in an effort to see that justice is done. Siegel in these films actually disavows much difference between hero and villain, with justice often ceding to vengeance.

While Halliday is military and not police, he still takes the law upon himself because of the box in which he’s found himself. Like other of Siegel’s protagonists, he doesn’t let a whole lot in his way.

The thing about Siegel is that while he frames some interesting moral and ethical dilemmas, he seldom allows his characters to hang around for very long to dwell on them. He’d rather cut straight to the chase - literally - and as a former film editor and second-unit director, knows how to handle the action.

The Big Steal’ is noir-on-a-tear, a raggedy little B-feature built for speed with everyone going along for the ride. No wonder. Screenwriter Holmes/ Mainwaring gifts Mitchum and Greer with as much keen, noir-induced dialogue and as many slippery story twists as you could hope for.

Mitchum and Greer make a great screen twosome but this time it’s Greer who really gets to show her stuff. As note-prefect as she was as Cathie Moffat in “Out of the Past’, director Jacques Tourneur really didn’t give her much more than just that one note to play as an impassive, amoral femme fatale.

There’s nothing impassive or fatale about her in the ‘The Big Steal’. Her Joan ‘Chiquita’ Graham is also chasing down Fiske, who’s supposed to be her fiancé but who has taken her for more than her virtue. But Greer’s got nothing but spunk, is at least as much on the ball as Mitchum and is no easier about hooking up with him as he is with her in order to reel Fiske in.

The wonderful stroppiness of the relationship Holmes has scripted out for them brings out the best in both actors. Mitchum is lively and Greer delivers the most appealing performance of her career (interestingly, she came late to the production, replacing Lizabeth Scott, who was taken off the production because of Mitchum’s arraignment on a marijuana rap).

The Big Steal’ is a thoroughly high-spirited effort but shouldn’t be dismissed as just a breezy comedy-suspenser and a no-account noir because of it. While contrived humor can be poisonous to film noir, that‘s not ‘The Big Steal’s problem because Seigel avoids it. He’s no smirky Hitchcock.

While ‘Private Hell 36’ is probably Siegel’s truest classic noir, ‘The Big Steal’ shows more than enough of noirland’s darkened surface features - icons Mitchum and Bendix, a story washed dark with bad luck, betrayal, greed and corruption and a resonant exchange of tough words and hard fists,

The Big Steal’ gives big enjoyment and good noir both. Lie back and enjoy.


Sarah & Helen said...

I love this movie and enjoyed your synopsis. Time to watch it again!

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