When it’s on: Friday, 16 October (2.05 pm)
Universal’s Film Noir Collection, which is a nine-disc set that I’ve never seen on sale at Amazon for anything over £20, is a marvellous introduction to the Noir style. It’s a bit ‘bare bones’ and some of the transfers aren’t fantastic, but the films are, with a couple of outright classics slipped in there, like Double Indemnity and Build My Gallows High. Unless they’ve changed the packaging, it comes in a fake cigarette packet, featuring a smoking gun on the cover, the smoke deliciously curling to form the outline of a Veronica Lake femme fatale. Fantastic.
If there’s an anomaly on the set, then it’s The Big Steal, a film that quite simply doesn’t seem very noirish. What makes it so is the cast, and the fact that the plot does actually fit the genre, only it’s told by director Don Siegel in a light fashion, almost a caper with crime elements that is framed around a lengthy car chase across the Mexican countryside. In someone else’s hands, perhaps the material’s darker elements might have been emphasised. Maybe Jane Greer’s character, for example, would become damaged beyond repair at the way she’s been mistreated and seek vengeance. And yet The Big Steal is no less for how it’s presented. It’s a lot of fun, a romp, and at 72 minutes in length it never slows down.
What it most certainly isn’t is Build My Gallows High, which is of course one of the absolute highlights of Film Noir. In contrast, The Big Steal can only come off poorly, its lightheartedness making it seem a poor cousin to the devastating emotional melodrama of Tourneur’s classic. In many ways, it’s a product of some late casting changes. Robert Mitchum at the time was about to serve a jail sentence for marijuana possession, which for anyone else might have spelled career suicide, though naturally the conviction only played up to Mitchum’s image and added to his mythos. All the same, RKO was nervous about this project. Lizabeth Scott’s agent withdrew her from the picture for fear the association would damage her future prospects, and Greer was called up as a last minute replacement. The trouble was her pregnancy, which became more obvious during the filming, though the film was shot in such a way to hide the fact from viewers. Similarly, Siegel and his crew had to work around Mitchum’s time in jail. Serving only sixty days of his year-long conviction before being released on probation, the film was nevertheless shot around him whilst the actor returned to the set noticeably slimmer than beforehand due to the exercise regime he’d undergone during his time behind bars.
Despite the countless issues Siegel experienced with Mitchum during filming, his bad boy lifestyle and frustrating attitude he had towards learning his lines, there was just no doubt the man had star quality written all over him. Whether involved in a dark, moody piece like Build My Gallows High or this, he essentially played the same character – laid back, laconic speech, good in a brawl, an all-round cool dude. Greer meanwhile had a much fuller starring role. Smart and resourceful, her character in The Big Steal can charm men with some well thought out words and it helps that she can speak Spanish fluently, a fact that makes for great comedy between her and Mitchum as his knowledge of the language is at best limited.
The film really boils down to a series of extended chase scenes. Mitchum and Greer are pursuing Patric Knowles’s smooth, handsome grifter, who’s swindled her out of two grand and later stolen much more from him. Every time they catch up with him, he wriggles his way out of their clutches and back onto the road, leading to a further pursuit. On Mitchum’s tail is William Bendix as his army superior, convinced he’s stolen the money for himself. Bendix is great, playing up to his bulk by appearing as a human hurricane, pushing aside people who get in his way on the street, trying to intimidate a herd of goats into shifting by bellowing at them. Overseeing all this is Ramon Navarra’s Mexican police inspector, who has an uncanny knack of placing himself in exactly the right place to follow the action. Indeed, the Mexicans as a whole come across quite well. Whereas there are criticisms of the film as being somewhat patronising to Mexican people, appearing to portray them as slow witted and moving at a pace never more than lumbering, in truth they’re depicted as knowing a good cause when they see one and quite understandably respond badly when a surly American is barking ‘Pronto! Pronto!’ at them, as though this will make them move any faster.
This was an early film in Siegel’s long directorial career. While this would find its ultimate expression in the much later Dirty Harry, there isn’t in truth a great deal of difference between Eastwood’s Callahan and Mitchum’s Halliday in the way they’re both men of action, preferring to do rather than think, and making for a picture that moves at pace and doesn’t let up. It’s very entertaining.
Having checked the Movies4Men listings, I can’t tell whether they will be screening The Big Steal in its original black and white or the ‘colorized’ version. It does seem that those of us with Region 2 discs only have the latter to watch, and I can’t say I’m a fan of the process – the colour looks washed out, there’s plenty of bleeding, suggesting a painstaking effort for very little gain. A shame.
The Big Steal: ****