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: ****

Build my Gallows High (1947)

When it’s on: Monday, 27 August (12.40 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.

If you have never seen Build my Gallows High (or, to give it its US title, Out of the Past), then do yourself a favour – stop reading this, set everything you were going to do to one side for 96 minutes, and watch it. Do yourself a second favour and record it also, because one viewing isn’t enough. Build my Gallows High is darn near a perfect film where this site is concerned, a taut and gripping thriller filled with heart and emotions so powerful they dribble from the screen, one in which barely a moment is wasted and where every shot counts.

Director Jacques Tourneur already had a fair old body of work to his name before taking on the project. Best known for a series of lean horror films made on a shoestring and produced by Val Lewton, he brought a reputation for lean storytelling to Build my Gallows High, packing meaning and imagery into just about anything the camera pointed at. It was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who adapted his own book, whilst Tourneur was fortunate enough to call on a dream central cast. Kirk Douglas was loaned to RKO from Paramount, combining with Jane Greer and relative newcomer Robert Mitchum to incredible effect.

The film’s plot actually starts in the middle of the story. Mitchum is Jeff Bailey, a gas station owner in quiet Bridgeport, California. He’s assisted by a deaf and dumb kid, played by Dickie Moore, and has a local sweetheart, Ann (Virginia Huston). All seems well until a man arrives in town who recognises Jeff from the past and makes him take a trip to meet rich Whit Sterling (Douglas). Before leaving, Jeff fills Ann in on the background. He’s not called Bailey at all, but Markham. He used to be a detective and some years ago he was hired by Whit to find a girl who’d shot him and run away with $40,000. Jeff’s trail leads him south into Mexico, and ultimately to Acapulco, where he not only finds Kathie (Jane Greer) but falls heads over heels for her. For a time, the pair dream about leaving their past lives behind and staying together, but eventually they’re discovered by Jeff’s old partner, who has been hired by Whit in turn and demands money from them. Kathie kills him, flees, and Jess winds up forging his new life in Bridgeport.

But it’s a temporary reprieve, and whilst Jeff tries to get on with things, there’s a sense of fatality about his return to Whit that suggests he knows it. Mitchum is a nigh on perfect fit for the character, expressing naturally his laconic manner, his submission to the whims of fate. His scenes alongside Douglas are just brilliant. They should be natural enemies, especially once it transpires they’ve both been with the same woman, but the film doesn’t go for obvious stereotyping and allows room for Whit’s charisma and gregariousness to shine. Best of all perhaps is Greer. Within the film noir genre, I struggle to think of a femme fatale who has been quite so angel-faced. The film proffers a mysterious energy upon her, dressing her in white when she first appears and making her subsequent dresses get darker throughout until she’s all in black by the end. It’s also worth noting that most of her appearances find her walking out of the shadows and into the light, a stark contrast with Mitchum who oscillates between being bathed in extremes of light and darkness.

The rest is atmosphere. Build my Gallows High develops a sombre mood of impending doom, like all the characters are in a mutually driven spiral of doom. Better still, they all come across as real human beings, ones with deep flaws. For all her badness, Kathie’s basically a survivor, but one who can make mistakes, such as hedging her bets on Jeff. Whit never appears to be the film’s villain; he’s all smiles and easy company, though Douglas gives the impression of steel beneath the grins and the way he blows his cigarette smoke at his opponents surrounds him in unease. And then there’s Jeff himself, the almost maddening way he throws himself to the fates and hopes for the best. But aren’t we all guilty of that sometimes?

In terms of the quintessential film noir experience, it’s at the top of the pile for me, and I imagine most fans would have it on at least the last one hundred metres. There’s a lovely passage in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy in which he almost leaps out of the body of his protagonist to lavish praise on the film, particularly the very last scene. It’s sublime, yet there’s little within its running time that’s anything less. It even has an influence that lasts in far more recent film making. The lesser remake, Against all Odds, from the 1980s is forgettable, but strong shades of it exist in one of the best films of the last decade, A History of Violence, and that’s no mean achievement. An essential afternoon’s entertainment.

Build me Gallows High: *****