Sunday, January 31, 2010

#80: The Big Steal (Don Siegel, 1949)

Released: July 9, 1949

Director: Don Siegel; Screenplay: Gerald Drayson Adams and Daniel Mainwaring based on a story by Richard Wormser; Cinematography: Harry J. Wild; Music: Leigh Harline; Producer: Jack J. Gross; Studio: RKO

Cast: Robert Mitchum (Lt. Duke Halliday), Jane Greer (Joan Graham), William Bendix (Capt. Vincent Blake), Patric Knowles (Jim Fiske), Ramon Novarro (Inspector General Ortega), Don Alvarado (Lt. Ruiz), John Qualen (Julius Seton), Pascual Garcia Pena (Manuel)

Here it is: the lightweight, stepsister of the all-time classic Out of the Past. Not all of the elements are the same, but there are enough similarities to warrant the comparisons. The most obvious are the two headliners, who comprise arguably the most electric on-screen pair in the history of film noir, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, once again working as a couple on the run. Once again, Mexico plays a central role in the romance and the chase. Both are playing different characters, with Mitchum’s Duke Halliday much looser than the sullen Jeff Bailey, but as someone who can’t picture them as anyone but Bailey and Kathie Moffat, it is hard for me not to continually compare the two distinct pairs. Also on board for this film is screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who once again turns in a witty, entertaining script. But it is mainly the Mitchum-Greer pairing that leads to the inevitable comparisons and contributes to The Big Steal being looked at as a lightweight follow-up to one of the greatest noirs ever made.

I can’t really dispute that classification – I do tend to view it as a lightweight follow-up to Out of the Past. But you know how many other films, let alone noirs, that I think are even close to the level of Out of the Past? Well, I place it at #6 when I made a rough personal Top 100 films of all time list, so that means very few. The Big Steal lacks the apprehensiveness that lurks at every turn of Out of the Past, but it never really tries to match such foreboding. This is more of a comedy-noir (if such a category exists), with the twists, turns and double-crosses of the best noirs being done almost tongue-in-cheek and with a sly grin. It’s not as dark as many prefer their noir, but it’s a rollicking, fun ride.

Lt. Duke Halliday and Joan “Chiquita” Graham (Jane Greer) are chasing and being chased across Mexico. They are chasing Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles), Halliday to clear his name after being framed in a payroll robbery and Graham in order to recover the money that her ex-fiance Fiske ran off with. Complicating things for Halliday is Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix), an Army investigator who is after him in order to arrest him for the payroll job. Nonchalantly watching all of this action unfold is Mexican Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro), who realizes very early that something is not right about this cast of characters. He sits back, allowing each party to work their plans, and watches for the right moment to swoop in and peacefully resolve everything.

With Don Siegel in the director’s chair, it also means that there will be outstanding action sequences, which is certainly the case. The car chase foreshadows the reputation that Siegel would come to acquire as a tense action director. The effects used to produce the speeding car chases may appear dated now, but they are impressive when compared to other attempts of the era. The story itself has some head-scratching sequences – why would Halliday and Graham ever abandon their car?! – but the plot almost becomes secondary to just watching, and listening to, the interaction between the principals. Mainwaring’s script may not be his best in terms of story development, but it once again shows him to have been one of the finest dialog writers of his time. The banter between Mitchum and Greer is fantastic – Greer as the cynical love interest and Mitchum mastering the humorous tough guy. The work of Mainwaring, both as a screenwriter and of source material for other films, is appreciated by all with an interest in noir, but his name is one that deserves to be even more well-known by general movie fans. Truly an unsung luminary of the era to the general public.

This is the simple formula that led to me to enjoying this one. Rather than comparing it to Out of the Past, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. I reveled in the give and take between Mitchum and Greer, enjoyed seeing a brighter Mexico than was explored in Out of the Past, and appreciated the uniqueness of a comedy noir.


  1. Lightweight "Out of the Past" is a good description for this film as any. I tend to like my noir dark so I don't think much of this film ( same as The Big Clock). Robert Mitchum is great as usual.He does make it worthwhile for a viewing or two......M.Roca

  2. It's all about liberation. James Taylor cut to the essence of it:

    "Americano got the sleepy eye
    But his body’s still shaking like a live wire
    Sleepy Senorita with the eyes on fire

    Oh, Mexico
    It sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low
    Moon’s so bright like to light up the night
    Make everything all right"

  3. I believe that this was the movie that Mitchum was making just before he was due to serve his sentence in the slammer for the marijuana "bust." It's a fun diversion, but other than a few Siegel directorial touches, I have a hard time considering The Big Steal a noir film, but what are categories, anyway?

    You're steaming right along, Dave--great job, Prolific One.

  4. M. Roca - Agreed on Mitchum.

    Tony, once again you add interesting and great comments.

    C.K. - Good point on "what are categories, anyway?", particularly when dealing with noirs. It not as simple as classifying something like a western, which is much more straightforward I think. Thanks for the compliments.

  5. Ramon Navarro gave a superlative performance here alongside Mitchum and Greer,who typically were rather unforgettable. Greer has some excellent one-liners, and as you note Dave, Siegel is the man for action. Of course its nowhere in the same league with OUT OF THE PAST,(which certainly contends for greatest noir) but it's a lot of fun.
    Great comments her from Tony, John, C.K., and M. Roca.

  6. Sam - Agreed on Noavarro... and Mitchum and Greer is as good as on-screen couples get, in my opinion. As you know from the Yearly Countdown, Out of the Past is certainly going to be in the running for top honors here (which, I honestly, haven't decided on yet!), so very few films can match it with that.

  7. I don't know guys...I'm not saying The Big Steal is as good as Out Of The Past, but I think it's comparable, and I'd certainly rank it higher. But with that said, I think referring to it as lightweight isn't necessarily wrong, as it seems to apply to its tone really well. But that lightness is damn hard to achieve, and few films of this era are as purely enjoyable as this one for me. And this is a great piece, Dave.

  8. Exactly Dave. I was figuring on OUT OF THE PAST as a VERY strong contender. But others (like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, NIGHT AND THE CITY and THE MALTESE FALCON among others) I know will be prominent. But I'll ay no more, I've said too much already in fact! Ha!

  9. Enjoyable but not at the same level as OUT OF THE PAST, then again few films are. so thhat is no insult. IMO you placed this just about right. Glad to see recognition of Don Siegel, one of the great action directors. His exciting car chase ending the Eli Wallach film THE LINEUP is superb!

  10. Doniphon - Yes, the lightweight is is fitting in terms of tone. As you say, this is just a fun film. Also interesting that you prefer this one to Out of the Past, which I'm guessing is a minority opinion... but I like seeing people take stands like that! :)

    John - Yes, Siegel could amp up the action with the best of them. It's certainly not Out of the Past, but it's entertaining.

  11. Dave, my comment was unintentionally misleading. When I said I'd rank it higher, I meant in my own imaginary personal list of noirs, I would have The Big Steal far higher. I don't think it's better than Out Of The Past, but I think it's in the same league (I just love the film!). On a completely unrelated note, I'm thrilled to see you liked Miami Vice so much (another one of my favorites).

  12. Nice review. Funny to think that this came from Don Siegel, one of my favourite directors and somebody more commonly associated with tough, robust and narratively terse movies. I like the film, but he made a better noir with Ida Lupino starring Private Hell 36.