by Allan Fish
(USA 1949 72m) DVD1/2
Oh – a two letter word meaning nothing in particular
p Jack J.Gross d Don Siegel w Gerald Drayson Adams, Daniel Mainwaring story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser ph Harry J.Wild ed Samuel F.Beetley m Leigh Harline art Albert S.d’Agostino
Robert Mitchum (Lieutenant Duke Halliday), Jane Greer (Joan ‘Chiquita’ Graham), William Bendix (Captain Vincent Blake), Ramon Novarro (Inspector Generale Artega), Patric Knowles (Jim Fiske), John Qualen (Seaton), Don Alvarado,
A film to bring a smile to the mere recollection, The Big Steal is one of those lucky flukes, a film for film buffs to adore. It could so easily not have been made. Howard Hughes had just taken over RKO and was making his likes and dislikes made pretty clear. Robert Mitchum was persona non grata following his arrest and brief incarceration for marijuana possession, and was given the film as penance, a B movie to be directed by an effective novice called Don Siegel. It would be shot on the cheap in Tehuacán in Mexico, and potential leading ladies were turning it down left, right and centre. Then enter Jane Greer. She and Mitchum had worked together immortally in Out of the Past a year or two earlier. They were close friends, and Mitchum looked forward to working with her again, while his affection for her would help while she was in the early days of pregnancy and had to take it relatively easy. There was one problem; Greer and Hughes had a history. Hughes had brought her to California in the first place, but he obsessed over her, kept her under affective house arrest until she had enough. She was now happily married, but it seemed like Hughes would hold fast to his promise that, though she would be paid, she’d never work again while he was head of RKO. Thankfully, he relented, and Mitchum, Greer and Siegel set off south of the border. What they made; though it wasn’t a masterpiece and was never intended to be, was one of forties Hollywood’s most purely fun films, a mixture of thriller with essences of romantic comedy.
Our hero, Duke Halliday, works for the army payroll, and is on the run after being accused by Captain Vincent Blake if stealing $200,000. Blake and Halliday have a tussle on board ship as it pulls into port and Halliday overpowers his foe and steals his identity papers. He has just one lead, to a man called Fisk, who he knows has the money. Fisk is also being chased by his previous conquest, Joan Graham, from whom he got $2,000 under false pretences. Fisk escapes, and inadvertently Joan and Duke set off after Fisk, and with Blake in hot pursuit, in search of their respective greenbacks.
Knowles’ two-faced slimeball is typical of his later run of cowardly crooks, Qualen’s fence is more than memorable and Navarro is hilarious as the English-learning cop who sets his little mouse off to find “some bigger mouses.” There’s also a priceless contribution by the inimitable Bendix, and he has numerous moments to savour, not least when his chase of the couple is stopped by Halliday’s letting a flock of goats loose. One goat taunts him with a loud bleat, to which Bendix simply responds in kind. At its heart, though, it’s cherished as the Bob and Janey show part two. Their relaxed chemistry is not only delightful but an object lesson in understatement, Mitchum’s somewhat bullish approach countered by Greer’s wonderful wry smiles, sideways glances and slowing down of speech that made her such an enigmatic yet expressive actress (this was partly caused by her suffering from facial paralysis in her childhood, after which she learned to communicate with minimal gestures). Some of the plot developments may be silly, as if the writers made it up as they went along – abandoning their car seemingly a plot device to ensure they got caught. No Mexican cliché is left untapped, and the very essence of the film is captured in the final scene where Greer teasingly describes the Mexican courting ritual to Mitchum. “They waste an awful lot of time down here” he says, shaking his head. Greer just looks behind him, with one of her trademark looks, and purrs “Oh, I don’t know…” Cue a family of numerous children passing by. One for the desert island, just a shame Chiquita won’t be there.