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Tag Archives: John Qualen

The Big Steal (July 9, 1949)

The Big Steal

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.

Mitchum and Greer

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.

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Captain Kidd (Nov. 22, 1945)

Released on Thanksgiving day in 1945, director Rowland V. Lee’s Captain Kidd is a pretty good swashbuckler, even though it’s not exactly a history lesson.

The real William Kidd was hanged for piracy in 1701, but there is still debate about the extent of his crimes on the high seas, and whether or not he should even be considered a pirate, as opposed to a privateer; someone employed by a nation to attack foreign shipping during time of war. But no matter how unjust his execution might have been, the name “Captain Kidd” and rumors of his buried treasure have passed into pirate legend along with names like Blackbeard and Calico Jack.

The film’s prologue shows the “ruthless” (according to the narrator) Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) and his pirate crew reduce the English galleon The Twelve Apostles to a smoking ruin near Madagascar and sneak off to a cove to bury their booty before high tide. His band of cutthroats includes B-movie stalwarts John Carradine and Gilbert Roland (playing characters named Orange Povey and José Lorenzo, respectively). When there is a dispute over the spoils, Kidd shoots one of his crew and buries him with the treasure. The impromptu eulogy he says over the grave is a masterpiece of irony.

The action moves forward to London, 1699. Kidd is receiving instructions on how to be a gentleman from a man named Shadwell (Reginald Owen), such as “A gentleman never sucks his teeth” and “A gentleman never pays his domestics high wages.” Kidd’s lust for gold is clearly matched by his lust for power. When he is granted an audience with King William III (Henry Daniell), he convinces the king that he is the right man to sail to India and give a treasure-laden ship called the Quedagh Merchant safe passage through the pirate-infested waters of Madagascar. In exchange he wants a castle and the title of a lord.

William III in this movie is pretty easily manipulated, because he also agrees to Kidd’s insane demand that he be given a crew of condemned pirates. Kidd claims the irreedeemable brigands will be loyal as long as they know a royal pardon awaits them at the completion of a successful mission. Along with some of his old mates from Newgate Prison, Kidd frees a wild card; a tall, well-spoken man named Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), who was the master gunner to another pirate, Captain Avery. Mercy’s motives are mysterious, but it should come as no surprise to the audience when the stalwart and handsome Scott steps into the role of protagonist.

Scott is best known for his many roles in westerns. His physical appearance and his acting style were the Platonic ideal of a western hero, but he makes a decent swashbuckler, too. Scott doesn’t try too hard to hide his American accent in this movie, but he has a patrician bearing that makes up for it, and the scene in which he locks swords with Roland (who went on to play the Cisco Kid in a number of pictures) is exciting and masterfully directed. And the fact that he does it to protect Lady Anne Dunstan (Barbara Britton) from Roland’s unwanted advances should delight people who like to read into a scene’s Freudian undertones. (Scott and Roland are the two most virile men on the ship, and as they sword fight, the camera keeps cutting back to Britton, who gasps at each clash of steel on steel.)

Laughton and Scott were the same age, but they might as well have been from different species. While Scott was heroic and laconic, Laughton was a grotesque, blubbery-lipped character actor, and much of the pleasure in watching this film comes from his fantastic performance. No one else can deliver a line like, “Of all the slummocky blackguards!” and sound genuinely appalled while at the same time disgusting the viewer with his own loathsomeness.