Noir movie review
William Bendix crashes into Robert Mitchum’s steamship stateroom flashing a gun.
“Where is it Halliday?”
We don’t know who or what Bendix is looking for, but Mitchum slugs him, steals his ID identifying him as Army Capt. Vincent Blake and scrams down the gangplank into the bustling dockside crowd of Veracruz, Mexico.
Action in the 1949 film The Big Steal starts quickly and confusingly. Halliday maneuvers his way through the crowd berating souvenir hawkers and other locals for getting in his way.
Another debarking passenger, Joan Graham (Jane Greer), chastises him for throwing his weight around, especially when he doesn’t speak Spanish.
“It’s men like you who make people like them contemptuous of tourists. Doesn’t it occur to you they don’t understand?”
When Halliday is blocked by an insistent peddler selling a caged parrot, he relents and buys the bird. With an insistent squawk, it swears in Spanish. He hands the bird to Graham and ducks out when he sees Blake at the top of the gangway.
Graham gets a cab to a hotel where she surprises Jim Fiske (Patrick Knowles) in his room. After he proposed to her in the States, he ran off with $2,000 she loaned him. Now that she’s caught up with him, she wants it back.
When he tries to sweet talk her, she slaps him in the face and demands the money. She wants the money, not him.
“Come on. Hand it over. I was saving that money for my trousseau,” she says in mock distress.
“Oh, darling, your pride’s been hurt because I went away without a word.”
“And stayed away without several.”
“Will you try to believe there was a reason, a good one.”
“Sure, you wanted to surprise me. By not coming back.”
Fiske tells her he has to deliver a package for someone two hundred kilometers away and for that he’ll receive “a fortune” that he’ll dump in her lap. He tells her he was just on his way out to rent a car for the journey and invites her to freshen up after her voyage. Graham grabs Fiske’s briefcase, apparently the package Fiske must deliver. She tells him she’s going to take a shower with the briefcase until he gets back.
When she shuts the bedroom door, Fiske pulls a suitcase from a cabinet and takes off. Seconds later, Halliday appears in the hotel hallway and lets himself into Fiske’s room. He hears the shower running and calls for Fiske to come out. He’s surprised to see his antagonist from the wharf dressed in a robe. He introduces himself as Army Captain Blake.
“Get out,” she tells him. “You Army men might be accustomed to group showers. I like mine alone.”
“Where’s Fiske,” he asks.
“Taking the parrot for a walk.”
“You wouldn’t be his wife, would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
When Graham asks Halliday what he’s looking for, he tells her, “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
Throughout their exchange and throughout most of the movie, Graham gives as good as she gets and then some. Far from the damsel in distress she helps Halliday out in scrapes with the local police and takes no guff.
The Big Steal was a reunion for Mitchum and Greer who two years earlier starred in Out of the Past, considered one of the top noir films ever. Out of the Past was a complex, twisty-turny PI saga based on a novel by Daniel Mainwaring, also one of the film’s script writers as he was for The Big Steal.
The latter picture has some of the plot flourishes of Out of the Past, but it’s mainly a pursuit movie. Greer was a last-minute replacement in the cast, partially due to Mitchum getting arrested for marijuana possession. See footnote.
We get a clue why Halliday is pretending to be Blake, then Graham and Halliday take off across Mexico after Fiske with Blake (Bendix) hot on their tail. It’s not until the duo is in hot pursuit that Halliday fully explains who he is and why he’s after Fiske. It’s one of two main surprises in the picture (the last one is at the end) so I won’t include the details here.
The Mexico car chase—1949 style—takes up the central part of the picture. With Graham at the wheel, their car screeches through mountain roads almost catching Fiske and almost being caught by Blake.
Given the date of the picture, some Mexican stereotypes are to be expected. Halliday refers to Graham as “Chiquita” throughout the film. Mexican-American actor Ramon Novarro, however, as the police inspector, gets the upper hand with Halliday and Fiske in the scenes they share by pretending to be not quite as sharp as his suspects suspect.
Steal was one of director Don Siegel’s first films. He went on to direct the original, 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, five films with Clint Eastwood including Dirty Harry, and John Wayne’s last picture, The Shootist.
In the category of nonsense trivia, I’ve become more aware of the challenges of film continuity. It looks as if Mitchum wears more than one fedora in Steal.
Snappy repartee, protracted car chase scenes and surprises along the road make this one hour and eleven minute film a well-above-average noir treat.
Footnote on Jane Greer: To see a bio of Greer visit the site below. It asserts that Greer’s career was torpedoed by Howard Hughes head of RKO, the studio that produced The Big Steal. The article on Greer also explains how the film was made despite Mitchum getting arrested and incarcerated for possession of marijuana (oh no!) and the fact that Greer’s pregnancy kept production on a tight schedule. https://www.aenigma-images.com/2016/07/jane-greer-queen-film-noir/
Footnote on continuity: Continuity is the idea that all details—however minute–in a film or TV show are consistent from shot to shot and from scene to scene. According to MasterClass.com, if a scene upholds the standards of continuity, each shot feels as though it seamlessly flows from the previous shot. I’m not usually looking for continuity gaffs, but I’m pretty sure Mitchum wears more than one fedora from scene to scene in Steal. Check the edge of his hat brims.
Footnote on availability: You can rent The Big Steel on YouTube or Amazon for $2.99.