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: ****

Detective Story (1951)

When it’s on: Monday, 30 April 2012 (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I’m drowning – drowning in my own juice…

The more times I watch films by William Wyler, the more it’s becoming apparent he’s one of my favourite directors. 90 Take Willie, a perfectionist renowned for filming scenes over and over until he’d got exactly what he wanted from them, might be better known for his three Academy Awards for directing, and for filming on vast canvases as in The Big Country and Ben-Hur, but Detective Story is an altogether smaller affair. Filmed almost entirely on a single set (the 21st police precinct in New York) and focusing on a day in the life of both the cops and robbers who frequent it, the picture’s an intimate portrayal of one man’s descent into despair.

At first, Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) appears to have it all – the glamorous wife (Eleanor Parker) and uncompromising attitude to law-breakers. His policy of zero tolerance might very well make him the Daily Mail‘s perfect copper as he switches from case to case with crisp, almost insouciant ease. But there are flaws in his armour, witnessed by those around him (reliable character actors like William Bendix and Horace McMahon) who realise he’s a timebomb of hate and anger and spend part of their day trying to temper his force of nature. McLeod’s darker side rises to the surface with the appearance of Dr Karl Schneider (George Macready), an accused abortionist with the blood of many women on his conscience. The detective’s been trying to bring him to justice for a year and grows increasingly frustrated with his unwillingness to confess, beating him savagely on a trip to the hospital to visit a witness after Schneider suggests he has information that concerns McLeod himself.

That information turns out to concern Mrs McLeod in a story teased out by the detective’s boss, Lieutenant Monahan (McMahon). And here, McLeod’s thin veneer of self-control starts to unravel. His harshness to the mainly petty criminals brought in increases, notably to Arthur (Craig Kindred), a first timer who’s committed an offence of burglary against his employer. McLeod’s partner, Brody (Bendix), thinks that Arthur’s made a young man’s mistake and can be let off with a warning, but the detective’s having none of it, seeing Arthur as inevitably starting on a slippery slope that will lead him to the career criminality exhibited by two harder cases who’ve been brought in.

Detective Story is adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s 1949 play. Wyler uses his limited set to film from all angles, largely reflecting McLeod’s state of mind. The early shots are more controlled as he’s in calm control, concentrating mostly on the apparently endless series of cases brought to the precinct and the staff’s attempts to keep on top of everything. Later, the space surrounding Douglas seems to compress, shutting him in. The rooms he uses to talk with his wife become more cramped and claustrophobic, and it’s no surprise that the ‘talking to’ he gets from Brody takes place on the roof, the wide open cityscape at night mirroring the possibilities of a bright future he’s hearing.

The film relies on strong performances from its cast and it gets them. Douglas is at his most commanding, but there is time to explore the other lives and especially affecting is the turn delivered by Lee Grant, the petty shoplifter who’s being booked and from whose perspective much of the story unfolds. Grant was one of several cast members who reprised her role in the play, and she earned an Oscar nomination for her playing of the bewildered woman trying to cope with the dizzying blur of activity into which she’s been thrown.

Detective Story: ****

Lifeboat (1944)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 25 April 2012 (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

This little wartime thriller, made by Alfred Hitchcock while he undertook his Masters in Suspense, ranks amongst his lesser known works. The reasons for this go back to its initial release. Twentieth Century Fox came under considerable pressure because Lifeboat had the temerity to make its German character a living, breathing human being and not a monster. This led to a limited number of screenings and obscurity, which is a shame as it’s a cracking featuring a raft (sorry) of solid, rounded characters.

Lifeboat came into being from Hitchcock’s desire to tell war stories during the conflict. Tales of peril at sea sat well with him and no less a figure than John Steinbeck was hired to write a story. Already switched on to the idea of making films from a single set – which, via the end of the decade’s Rope, would find its ultimate expression in Rear Window – Hitchcock storyboarded the film before a single camera rolled, trying to ensure no two shots would look the same. Lifeboat was filmed on a studio set, the titular vessel floating in a purpose-built tank, whilst various boat segments where also constructed for more intimate angled shots.

The entire film – apart from a tiny, post-credits sequence – is told from the point of view of the passengers, floating about somewhere in the Atlantic in their little boat. They’re the survivors of a passenger liner that’s been torpedoed in a U-Boat attack, though the submarine has also been destroyed in the exchange of fire. A disparate group they are, from famous society journalist, Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) to wounded American sailor Gus Smith (William Bendix), gobby Communist John Kovac (John Hodiak) and black seaman, George Spencer (played by former welterweight contender, Canada Lee). At first, the passengers show a cheerful determination to get along while they await rescue, despite the early departure of distressed mother, Mrs Higgins (Heather Angel) who drowns herself after being brought onto the lifeboat with her already dead baby.

There’s a significant elephant in the room in the avuncular shape of Willi (Viennese actor, Walter Slezak), a survivor from the U-boat who denies he’s a Nazi officer and can apparently speak only German. The optimism of the group stops him from being tossed overboard, as does his early diagnosis of Gus’s wound as being gangrenous and requiring an amputation. Willi even performs the surgery himself, a precursor to his steady taking over of control as it becomes clear he’s the most able seafarer amongst them. But is he all that he seems? Why, as the food and water runs out or falls victim to stormy seas, is he fresher than anyone else, capable of rowing and showing greater purpose?

The questions surrounding Willi are answered over the course of the film, as the tension mounts and the passengers suffer from dehydration and desperate frustration. The sense of claustrophobia is palpable, possibly a real-life consequence of the small set and privations endured by the cast. Constantly doused with water, which led to a couple of cases of pneumonia, the shoot was hampered with injuries and illness. There was also much comedy and annoyance in equal measure involving Tallulah Bankhead, a noted bonne vivante who brought a titanic reputation for her high rolling lifestyle to the set and caused a stir amongst cast and crew for her tendency to ‘go commando.’

Lifeboat may be the best Hitchcock film to have settled into relative obscurity, particularly compared with others that are rightly regarded as second rate. It’s just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema series, with a fresh high-definition remaster. Make no mistake, Lifeboat deserves the royal treatment. It might even be time to look into replacing my current copy (a Fox Region 1 release from 2005), which is beginning to show its age.

Lifeboat: ****