Friday, October 7, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Big Steal (1949)

The Big Steal (1949) ***
Directed by: Don Siegel.
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring & Gerald Drayson Adams based on the story by Richard Wormser.
Starring:  Robert Mitchum (Lt. Duke Halliday), Jane Greer (Joan Graham), William Bendix (Capt. Vincent Blake), Patric Knowles (Jim Fiske), Ramon Novarro (Inspector General Ortega), Don Alvarado (Lt. Ruiz), John Qualen (Julius Seton), Pascual García Peña (Manuel).

There is something about Robert Mitchum that I cannot help but love. He was an actor who always claimed he didn’t care about his work or his career. He admitted to Roger Ebert in the 1970s that he had never even seen Out of the Past (1947), perhaps his greatest movie ever, because he wasn’t much interested. He often said that Midway (1977) was his favorite role because he got paid a lot of money, and got to hang out all day in bed in pajamas.  He said yes to seemingly every movie, and that is why his resume is filled with clunkers. And yet, in pretty much every role Mitchum played, there are at least moments where he is brilliant. He had more charisma and commanded the screen better than just about anyone. Not every one of his films is a masterpiece – in fact precious few are – but Mitchum was a one of a kind actor. In 1948, Mitchum was arrested for marijuana possession, and ended up serving a week in county jail (which he described as “Palm Springs without the riff-raff”) and then 48 days on a work farm. For most young actors in the 1940s, this could have been a career killer – after all, Mitchum had only recently become a star with The Story of GI Joe (1945), but while the studio ordered him to clean up his act, the arrest didn’t seem to faze Mitchum or dim his rising star in the public’s eye. He was signed to star in Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949), but the studio had a problem – the young starlets they wanted didn’t want to be in the film with Mitchum because of his arrest. So in stepped Jane Greer, Mitchum’s Out of the Past co-star. While The Big Steal is nowhere near the same level as Out of the Past, it is fast paced and fun. Kind of film noir lite if you will. Of course, the chemistry between the two stars is pretty much what makes the film good.

The movie has a twisty, turny plot involving Lt. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) being accused of stealing $300,000 in payroll, that was really taken by Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). Halliday is chasing Fiske, while Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix) is chasing Halliday, because he thinks he is guilty. Getting off a boat in Mexico, Halliday first has to subdue Blake, and then meets Joan Graham (Greer), who was Fiske’s fiancée, and is after him because he stole $2,000 for her and then took off. Soon, Halliday and Graham have teamed up, and are chasing Fiske throughout Mexico, with Blake on their tail, and a Mexican cop named Ortega (Ramon Navarro), sitting back and watching.

The film is often referred to as a film noir, but I’m not really sure it qualifies. For one thing, the film certainly does not have the same darkness – either visually or thematically – as most film noirs. This is more of a straight ahead caper film – essentially one big, long chase sequence that moves at a breakneck pace from its opening scene right down to the end. The tone is far lighter – the witty banter between Mitchum and Greer a highlight. No one seems to be taking it all that seriously, and everyone seems to be having fun. The film was directed by Don Siegal – making only his fourth film as a director – but he keeps the pace moving. He had to shoot around Mitchum – who showed up to the set well after everyone else because of his jail time – and yet, the transition is pretty much seamless. He gets the most out of his actors, and Siegel was convinced that no matter what Mitchum said publicly, that he really did care about his work. Watching The Big Steal, it’s hard to argue with him. This is a lightweight, breezy entertainment – the type of film that many stars sleepwalk through. But Mitchum doesn’t. He carries the movie with his charm and screen presence. He does what all great actors do – he makes it look effortless.

The Big Steal is far from a great movie. It is completely disposable entertainment. Like many action films today, it fades from your memory just as the end credits come up. By while it’s playing – for barely 70 minutes – it is entertaining and fun.

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