The Big Steal (1949)

When it’s on: Friday, 16 October (2.05 pm)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

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: ****

Dirty Harry (1971)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 April 2012 (10.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Time for something really seminal here – along The French Connection, Dirty Harry was a late 1971 release that changed the cop movie forever, to such emphatic extent that one can draw a line in the course of police thrillers from before and after Inspector Callahan’s first outing.

Harry and Rita Fink’s story, Don Siegel’s direction and Clint Eastwood’s hard as nails turn combined to absolutely devastating effect. It remains one of Clint’s finest performances, one consistent with many he’d put in previously, only instead of a rootless west from some distant past he was now putting modern San Francisco to rights, albeit ‘rights’ on his own terms. As Harry, he’s just brilliant. Inscrutable enough to ensure his motivations are never explicit. Fused with a sense of right and wrong, yet tired with procedural justice and jaded to the point it’s often something he takes into his own hands. And what hands they are. The famous ‘Do you feel lucky?’ scene happens early, and it’s a killer. The bank robber declares he has to know if Callahan fired six shots or just five, so Harry pulls the trigger. There’s no bullet, but did he shoot because he knew he’d emptied the clip? Or didn’t he care either way? It’s a moment that tells us everything we need to know about Eastwood’s cop. To him, criminals are scum. They deserve the same sort of treatment they dish out and he’s the man to deal it.

The plot was based around the real-life case of the Zodiac Killer, a North California serial murderer who notoriously taunted the police via a series of letters. In the film, Callahan is assigned to the ‘Scorpio’ case early and, after several killings, is informed by the mayor that they’re giving in to his ransom demands and he has to deliver the money. Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) leads him on a merry dance across the city, forcing him to visit a number of payphones at certain times, before the exchange ends brutally and Harry is left with vengeance as well as justice on his mind.

Dirty Harry marked a hard and less compromising direction in the genre. Its main character was appreciated for his tough approach, yet criticised by some for being bigoted and at times downright nasty, as evidenced in the film’s infamous Kezar Stadium scene, one so controversial that even the camera pulls discretely away as Callahan goes about his grisly business. Otherwise, its unflinching attitude to shooting blood and nudity gave the production a gritty and real edge that was so effective the genre has never really taken a step back since. Eastwood wasn’t the first choice to star (Frank Sinatra was offered the part initially, followed by John Wayne) yet it’s difficult to imagine anyone else filling Harry’s shoes quite as well. Certain scenes – the one that sticks in my mind features Scorpio on the school bus, his mood turning to panic as he spots Harry watching him whilst stood, alone and indomitable, on a bridge – are absolutely iconic.

Siegel, one of those perennially underrated directors whose tidy CV included Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Killers, brought more than 25 years in the ‘chair’ to bear when making Dirty Harry and turned it into his best work. Eastwood certainly copied his directing style, which is tribute enough. As for Harry Callahan, he would return in four sequels, whilst a number of Eastwood’s other roles riffed on the character template. I have a great deal of time for Magnum Force, which continued to explore Dirty Harry’s theme of the failing justice system, but by The Enforcer he was already turning into a Harry-shaped object, albeit an entertaining one.

Dirty Harry: *****