The Big Steal (1949)
Directed by Don Siegel
RKO Radio Pictures
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer starred in my favorite film noir of all time, Out of the Past (1947). It’s not everyone’s favorite film noir, but I think most noir aficionados would at least put it in their top 10.
The Big Steal probably isn’t in too many noir fans’ top 10 lists, but it’s a damned good picture. I actually don’t think it’s a noir at all, even though it’s often classified as one. (It’s available on DVD as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 box set.)
Except for the noir-heavy power of the two leads and the presence of lovable film noir lummox William Bendix as a heavy (as well as the fact that the MacGuffin of the film is a large sum of money), there’s really nothing “noir” about The Big Steal.
The Big Steal is a fast-paced chase movie set in the sun-drenched countryside of Mexico. Robert Mitchum plays a US Army lieutenant named Duke Halliday who’s been accused of stealing a military payroll. On his trail is Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix). The film opens with Capt. Blake catching up to Duke on a ship docked in Veracruz, but Duke quickly gets the upper hand and goes on the lam with Blake’s identification papers.
Duke has a “meet cute” scene with American tourist Joan Graham (Jane Greer). She thinks he’s a boor; he thinks she’s a scold. She speaks Spanish; what he speaks barely qualifies as “Spanglish.”
They go their separate ways. She goes to the hotel room of her ne’er-do-well fiancé Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles) and demands he return the $2,000 he “borrowed” from her. Fiske slips away while she’s in the shower and Duke shows up, looking for Fiske, since Fiske has a lot more money than Joan realizes.
At just 71 minutes long, this is a movie that doesn’t waste any time. Duke and Joan are chasing Fiske, and Capt. Blake is chasing Duke and Joan. Mexican police officials Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro) and Lt. Ruiz (Don Alvarado) are chasing all four of them, with no particular urgency.
There’s plenty of action. Siegel keeps the tone light, but when there’s gunplay or a fistfight, it’s swift and tough, which is as it should be.
While I love Jane Greer in Out of the Past, her character in that film is a classic femme fatale — icy and unknowable. Her role in The Big Steal is more similar to the screwball comediennes of the 1930s. Greer and Mitchum have an easy chemistry, trading barbs and falling for each other along the way. He cracks wise about women drivers, and later she gets to show him exactly what a woman driver can do in a high-speed chase on a twisty mountain road.
Oh, and there’s one more connection with Out of the Past. The Big Steal is based on Richard Wormser’s story “The Road to Carmichael’s,” but the screenplay is by Gerald Drayson Adams and Daniel Mainwaring. Daniel Mainwaring also wrote the screenplay for Out of the Past, which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High.
Don Siegel was a craftsman who had a long career in Hollywood. He directed some of my favorite films of all time, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971), but there are a ton of his films I haven’t seen. I’ve seen his first film, a short called Star in the Night (1945), which is a sweet little Christmas parable starring J. Carrol Naish. I haven’t seen his next few films, the documentary short Hitler Lives (1945), the mystery feature The Verdict (1946), or the romantic melodrama Night Unto Night (1949), which starred Ronald Reagan and Viveca Lindfors (who was married to Siegel from August 10, 1949, to May 26, 1954).
Watching The Big Steal reminded me just how much I love Siegel’s films, and made me happy that I still have so many left to see.
Really enjoyed your write-up, Adam. I have yet to really see this film. I’ve had it in my collection for years, and just a couple of weeks ago, it was playing while I was piddling around the house, but I never really stopped to watch more than a few minutes. I will have to give it a real look one of these days.
It’s fun. It’s also a good movie to put on when you want something to watch that isn’t a big time commitment. I wish Hollywood still knew how to make an entertaining 71-minute feature, but alas, I think that B-moviemaking skill is a lost art.