Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Big Steal (1949)




This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

In 1949 RKO found themselves in a bit of a bind. Their latest project, The Big Steal, was already in the works when their star, Robert Mitchum, found himself in the clink for possession of narcotics. A couple of years earlier RKO had purchased Richard Worsmer’s short story from Columbia Pictures. They had planned to make the film with their star Chester Morris. When RKO bought the rights they turned to Daniel Mainwaring (aka Geoffrey Homes) to adapt the screenplay. They needed a leading lady and RKO made a deal with Hal Wallis for him to loan out Lizabeth Scott. But with Mitchum’s headline making scandal Scott and Wallis wanted nothing more to do with the project. No one knew exactly what effect Mitchum’s incarceration would have on his career. RKO chief Howard Hughes wasn’t about to his star Jane Russell be associated with Mitchum. At least not for a few more years when Mitchum and Russell made His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952). Hughes and his team needed what The Washington Post called “a bankable last-minute casting replacement.” And that replacement was Jane Greer.



Mitchum and Greer had starred together in the film noir Out of the Past (1947). It was a natural fit to reunite them for The Big Steal. “The woman with the Mona Lisa smile” had fond memories of working for RKO and would tell stories of the family atmosphere of the studio. They groomed their stars and had an active role in training them and building their careers from the ground up. In the early days of her career she auditioned for several studios and moguls but it was independent producer Howard Hughes who signed her up for a contract. Hughes was obsessed with Greer and would deny her work when she didn’t return his affection. She managed to get out of that contract and sign up with RKO. However Hughes bought RKO a few years later and was back in control of Greer’s acting career. In an interview with journalist James Bawden, Greer said,

“He had bought RKO and I figured I was through. But he was still fixated with me. When I was well enough to work, he simply stopped sending scripts. Had to pay me or the contract would have blown up. But just to get at me, he sent the checks and no work offers. Refused to loan me out. He was going to punish me for marrying someone else. He was going to make me suffer.”

It’s sad that we can’t discuss Jane Greer’s work without talking about all the times Hughes tried to sabotage it. In the case of The Big Steal, Hughes placed in a precarious position of starring alongside an actor with a potentially tarnished reputation. But little did Hughes know that Mitchum’s arrest would have the opposite affect on his career and that audiences would embrace seeing Greer and Mitchum on screen once again.

“Never mind where you’ve been just worry where you’re going.”

The Big Steal stars Robert Mitchum as Duke Halliday, an army lieutenant on the run from his captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix) who thinks Duke stole $300,000 cash from the Army. Blake follows Halliday to Mexico where Halliday is on the chase for the person who actually stole the money, Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). Along the way Halliday meets Joan Graham (Jane Greer), Fiske’s girlfriend and another victim of Fiske’s double-crossing schemes. Halliday and Graham do not get along. It’s a battle of wits between these two. Just as Halliday has Fiske in his grasp, he’s thwarted by police inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro). Halliday hitches a ride with Graham, much to her dismay, and the two set off on a wild goose chase through the Mexican countryside in search of Fiske. With Blake on their tail and a lot of obstacles in their way, this unlikely pair are about to find out that not everything is as it seems.

Film historian James Ursini refers to The Big Steal as “screwball comedy meets film noir.” You may watch this film and wonder what’s so noir about it. It’s truly a hybrid film, much lighter fare than Mitchum and Greer’s Out of the Past (1947). This was an opportunity for the two to tap into their comedic talents. Greer’s lost a bit of her youthful glow and not as soft and deceptively innocent looking as she was in the role of Kathie Moffat. Greer’s Joan Graham is wise and world-weary. She has the ingenuity to keep things moving along especially when Duke stalls. Their scenes together are playful. Halliday calls her “Chiquita”, Spanish for small. He makes fun of Graham’s driving only to discover that his sexist remark is completely unfounded: she’s a more than competent driver and can tackle the winding roads at great speed. She's the sidekick he needed. They don’t trust each other at first but soon develop a sweet affection for each other that blossoms into a romance but also makes them protective of each other. Theirs is a hate-love relationship whereas in Out of the Past it was very much love-hate.

Shot on location in Mexico, relative newcomer, director Don Siegel, had to keep production going while Mitchum served his time in the LA County jail. In an interview, Greer remembers, “We all sat around for two months getting paid and waiting for our leading man to reappear.” Any scene that could be shot without Mitchum or with a stand-in was filmed. Mitchum was released from jail in March 1949 and it was full speed ahead for production. There was another time crunch to deal with. Greer was pregnant with her second child and starting to show. What resulted was a taut little 71 minute movie, a non-stop chase movie with some continuity errors but no room for needless lingering. One notable aspect of the film is the depiction of Mexicans in the film. They are wary of tourists, especially American ones. Graham chastises Halliday for treating various Mexican characters in an abrupt manner. It’s clear that Graham and Halliday have to work with the locals rather than have the locals work for them. As a Latina, I look for the representation of Latino characters in film and I found these scenes kind of refreshing.

For fans of Out of the Past (1947), seeing Mitchum and Greer together again, albeit in a very different type of movie, is a treat. It’s not a great film but it’s enjoyable viewing for Noirvember. Stay tuned because I have an in-depth article on Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum coming up in the annual "giant" issue of The Dark Pages newsletter.



Disclaimer: As a DVD Nation director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent The Big Steal on DVD.com.

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