The Big Steal (1949)
“Mitchum is HOT! – HOT…off location in the heart of Mexico…HOT…after a girl with a million-dollar figure!…HOT…at the nation’s boxoffices…HOT…in his newest picture!”
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix
Synopsis: An army lieutenant accused of robbery pursues the real thief on a frantic chase through Mexico aided by the thief’s fiancee.
31-year-old Robert Mitchum was, as the posters for The Big Steal loudly proclaimed, HOT(!) when it was released back in 1949. Not only did he possess rugged good looks, he had about him both an air of coolness and an aura of danger, a unique combination that appealed to both men and women. Men could imagine themselves eyeing women and sinking numerous shots of liquor with him in some seedy, dimly lit bar, while their wives fantasised about him coming to their boudoirs to service their needs after drinking their hubbies under the table. Mitchum was a natural for the Noir movies that were all the rage in the late 1940s, although The Big Steal never really fitted into that genre.
The movie opens, as all good crime movies do, with a man holding a gun bursting into our hero’s room. Our hero is Duke Halliday — a manly name if ever there was one — and the man with the gun is Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix) a cop who plans to arrest Halliday for robbery. But Blake only has one gun, whereas Halliday has two fists, both of which he uses to pound Blake into a stupor. When Blake slumps against a post and begins sliding to the floor, Halliday hauls him upright just so he can have another pop at him, thus marking himself out as more than just your average bland good guy.
The room is on a ship, and Halliday quickly disembarks onto a dockside in Mexico. On the dockside he encounters Joan Graham (Jane Greer), who takes an instant dislike to him because of the way he bellows at locals who get in his way as they try to peddle their wares. Despite being obstructed by desperate salesmen who lower their prices by 90% with unseemly haste, Halliday makes his getaway and heads for a hotel in which a guy called Fisk (Patric Knowles) is staying. Fisk isn’t there, however, and his girlfriend is in the shower when Halliday arrives. Thanks to one of those one-in-a-million coincidences that happen only in movies — and which the characters think practically nothing of — Fisk’s girlfriend just happens to be none other than Joan.
It turns out that both Halliday and Joan are after Fisk for the same reason: he stole large amounts of money from them and they want it back. With Joan it’s $2,000 savings, but Halliday’s down $300,000 of army payroll money and is suspected of pulling off the robbery himself, which is why Captain Blake is after him. Just how Halliday knows exactly where Fisk is staying is never really explained, but it doesn’t matter that much, because The Big Steal only ever pretends to take itself seriously. At heart it’s a comedy/adventure-cum-chase movie dressed up as a crime thriller.
At only just over 70 minutes long, The Big Steal wastes no time on such trivialities as character development. Each character’s back-story is told in a matter of one or two sentences, or the core of their character is revealed by one telling action which is then expanded on with each successive variation of that act. Knowles is a no good rat who repeatedly tries — or succeeds in — running out on the others; Blake is a dogged detective, who follows his quarry with the same mindless determination as the Yul Brynner android in Westworld (only a lot more excitably). The plot contains all the elements of a comic farce — the protracted chase, the switched ‘road closed’ sign, the herd of goats blocking the road, the locals enlisted to foil the pursuer — and yet plays it straight in a kind of light-hearted way, so that we never really fear for Joan and Halliday’s safety. In fact, with only a few minor script changes, this could have been a Bob Hope vehicle.
It turns out that Fisk is on his way to a fence to sell the hot £300,000, and Halliday and Joan must get to him before he seals the transaction. It’s a shame the writers didn’t extend the running time by a few minutes to give Patric Knowles some more screen time. His character could easily have been one of those memorably likeable villains, but as it is he comes across as a little bland. Mitchum and Greer display a decent chemistry, though, and Bendix is always good value for money. Former silent screen idol Ramon Novarro also makes one of his infrequent movie appearances as a mischievous Mexican police inspector who seems more interested in brushing up on his English skills than making sense of the drama unfolding around him. It’s an enjoyable movie, but it isn’t a Noir.
(Reviewed 4th August 2013)