“It’ll be getting dark soon. I hate the thought of spending the night with an empty revolver.”
Robert Mitchum was arrested for smoking marijuana in 1948. The scandal shocked few within the industry, but for the reefer-fearing public, his career was kaputt. There was tabloid coverage, outcry from Catholic decency groups, and a photo of Mitchum mopping the floor in his county blues — a seemingly fitting end for the Hollywood bad boy. Fortunately for Mitchum, he had RKO boss Howard Hughes in his corner.
The famous recluse was a huge fan, and since taking over the studio, had privately fixated on Mitchum as a kind of fantasy alter ego. The actor’s mix of baritone and brawn was the embodiment of what Hughes wanted in a leading man, and he’d be damned if it was all ruined on account of some petty dope charge. “Bob, I just came up here to reassure you that RKO is with you 100%” he told Mitchum.
Hughes paid for legal defense, and given the questionable circumstances under which Mitchum was arrested (rumors suggested that it was a sting operation to trap celebrities), he was sentenced to only 43 days in jail and parole. Less than six months after his arrest, the “reformed” Mitchum was back to playing bad boys exclusively on film.
Which brings us to The Big Steal. Released in July 1949, the film cast Mitchum as Lt. Duke Halliday, a veteran on the run from the law. It was a tongue-in-cheek way of welcoming the actor back to the big screen, and director Don Siegel even went as far as to open things up with Halliday’s arrest! Audiences must’ve been tickled. The man holding him at gunpoint, Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix), has Halliday pegged for a robbery he didn’t commit, but the commanding officer is quickly beaten silly and left behind. Halliday is way too busy tailing the real crook, Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles), to play coy.
This breakneck pace comes to define Steal. The film doesn’t waste a second of its 71 minute runtime, as it consists mainly of car chases that swap vehicles and allegiances every few scenes. Halliday and and fellow fugitive Joan Graham (Jane Greer) are chasing Fiske, Blake is chasing Halliday and Graham, and local police Lt. Ruiz (Don Alvarado) and Inspector General Ortega (Ramón Novarro) chase all four of them. Daniel Mainwaring loosens his collar after his previous noir effort, Out of the Past (1947), and serves up a brisk concoction of crime, screwball, and action. Flashbacks are long gone, replaced by an attitude too brisk to worry about repercussions or plot holes.
At a glance, Mitchum plays things in typically laconic fashion. He tackles the fugitive role with such calm that if not for the countless arrest attempts, we wouldn’t even know he was on the run. As the film progresses, however, Mitchum’s comedic timing keeps things loose and exciting. The screenplay gives Halliday lots of playful banter to work with, especially in the company of Graham, whom he nicknames “Chiquita.” Here’s a quick sample of the sparks that occur when these two interact:
Halliday: Where’s Fiske?
Graham: Taking the parrot for a walk.
Halliday: You wouldn’t be his wife, would you?
Graham: No, I wouldn’t!
Graham: I don’t like the ‘Mmm-hmm.’ I’m not his wife!
Halliday: If you were, I wouldn’t be saying ‘Mmm-hmm!’
While this comedic tone would continue in Mitchum’s later films noir (His Kind of Woman, Macao), it’s actually his leading lady, Jane Greer, who does it best. Having been immortalized as Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past, the doe-eyed actress didn’t get much to play besides impassive and evil. Here, given the chance to play an assertive role, Greer provides the liveliest performance of her career. Whether reeling Fiske in or spurning Halliday’s sexual advances, she crackles like a screwball comedy player who stumbled onto the wrong film set.
Despite her obvious talents, Greer only won the part after it was turned down by every other actress at RKO. Greer had dated Howard Hughes in the ’40s, but after breaking things off to marry singer Rudy Vallée, the studio boss vowed to derail her career. By the time The Big Steal was put into production, she was at the bottom of the RKO pecking order. It was only after Lizabeth Scott, Jane Russell, and several others passed (due to Mitchum’s criminal reputation) that she was begrudgingly cast. Greer was also pregnant during shooting, but kept the news secretive as she knew it would cost her the part.
Navigating through this mess of personal biases and shooting schedules, director Don Siegel uses the film to further his burgeoning style. Halliday is the prototype of the Siegel hero: combative and actively defiant of the establishment. Instead of teaming up with the cops or chatting with the bad guys, he does things the hard way, and answers any roadblocks with car bumpers and swollen fists.
“I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like to turn around, Chiquita. Besides, that there’s a guy behind me with a gun.”
Granted, Halliday is softer than characters like Dirty Harry or the hit-men in The Killers (1964), but lingering moments of violence suggest that he was the ground zero. In this regard, Steal makes a strong case for being the first action-noir — predating Siegel’s other classics, as well as those from Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly) and Samuel Fuller (The Naked Kiss).
To be fair, The Big Steal does leave a few film noir boxes unchecked. It’s very silly, and tropes like moody lighting and the femme fatale are notably absent. And yes, it falls short of the other Mitchum-Greer-Mainwaring collaboration, Out of the Past. But frankly, none of that matters. Drop the huge expectations, let Siegel’s manic energy lead the way, and The Big Steal will be too much fun to dismiss. Mitchum couldn’t have picked a more pleasing comeback if he tried. B
TRIVIA: Greer took pills onset to combat her morning sickness, and co-star William Bendix asked what they were for. After she told him they fought off “Montezuma’s Revenge,” he asked her for some. Later on, he thanked her because he didn’t get sick.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.