Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bonus Noir: The Big Steal (1949, Don Siegel)

Directed by: Don Siegel
Written by: Richard Wormser (story), Daniel Mainwaring (screenplay), Gerald Drayson Adams (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Given that The Big Steal (1949) was the only film to reunite Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer after Out of the Past (1947), one could be forgiven for expecting a dark, seedy film noir thriller. Indeed, even the title recalls some of the genre’s classic heist flicks, something along the lines of The Asphalt Jungle (1949) or The Killing (1956). But director Don Siegel was not interested in following Jacques Tourneur’s footsteps, and instead delivered a breezy, and often amusing, exotic drama in which the cross-Mexico chase almost takes a back-seat to the budding romance between its two main stars. Nevertheless, the film takes generous inspiration from film noir, particularly during an opening scene which sees Duke Halliday (Mitchum) “pull a fast one” on Capt. Blake (William Bendix), who is pursuing him for the suspected theft of military money. The exotic setting also recalls the future thrills of Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray’s Macao (1952), a picture that – probably not coincidentally – also starred both Mitchum and Bendix.

Perhaps the most prominent noir element of The Big Steal is the blurring of the boundaries between hero and villain. Duke Halliday is an American lieutenant wanted for the theft of military money, but, despite professing his innocence, has no apparent qualms about clouting his superior officer in the face. Halliday himself is in pursuit of Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles, whom you might remember from After the Thin Man (1939) or The Wolf Man (1941)), whose guilt will prove Halliday’s innocence. In Blake’s pursuit of Halliday, as you can see, the traditional theme of the innocent pursuing the guilty is disrupted, and an eleventh-hour plot-twist only does more to distort the fallacy. Jane Greer is far from her vicious femme fatale of Out of the Past, but nor is she relegated to the role of the vulnerable damsel; Joan Graham is shown to be smart, resourceful and independent, able to talk herself out of trouble and even hold her own in a high-speed car chase along a winding mountain road.

What I found most refreshing about The Big Steal was its relative forwardness about sex, an oddity given the strictness of the Production Code at the time. Greer’s character, at first apathetic to her leading man, rather quickly acquires the urge to sleep with him. Nothing explicity takes place during the film, of course, but there’s an electricity there, of the sort than Bogart and Bacall brought to the screen so effortlessly. In a moment of crisis, Mitchum wearily muses “It'll be getting dark soon. I hate the thought of spending the night with an empty revolver.” Greer’s response is unexpected and amusing in its forwardness: “there’s always me.” Even Mitchum seems somewhat surprised that his heroine has been seduced by the allure of gunfire and looming danger, replying, “tonight you gotta pick?” Though the film does occasionally try to sanitise the Mitchum/Greer romance through references to marriage and having ten children, we can understand why Mitchum looks so flustered at the suggestion. He certainly wasn’t thinking nine months ahead.

Currently my #6 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) White Heat (Raoul Walsh)
3) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
4) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
5) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
6) The Big Steal (Don Siegel)
7) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
8) Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)
9) Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick)
10) Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius)