Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring
What does it is matter if one possesses a powerful, booming voice if one cannot use it to the full extent? Robert Mitchum, Hollywood legend and an actor whose voice could sound like that of a giant when pulling those vocals chords hard enough, discovers such an unfortunate predicament rather early in the 1949 Don Siegel directed film, The Big Steal. As an American traveling the Mexican countryside who speaks little to no Spanish, he quickly discovers the necessity in siding with people he is unsure if he can trust, a situation that might seem familiar to many a world traveler. Alliances with mysterious people is always a welcome ingredient in these sorts of movies, although in the case of this film, said alliances carry all the more meaning due to the circumstances.
The film reunites two of the genre greatest stars, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, who acted opposite one another two years prior in the classic Jacques Tourneur picture, Out of the Past. Steal takes viewers to Mexico, where a host of characters are on the hunt for one thing and one thing only: a suitcase full of cash. In the film’s opening scene, Lt. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) is accosted at gun point in his cruise ship cabin by a man (William Bendix) whose identity remains a secret at this point. The latter is after a large sum of money, which of course the hero does not have. Quick thinking and reflexes assist Halliday in his escape, but not before he steals the man’s identity papers. While on shore, Halliday awkwardly runs into one Joan Graham (Jane Greer), plagued by some money issues of her own, having lent 2,000$ to her current beau, Jim Fisk (Patrick Knowles), who has prolonged the payback far beyond her tolerance level. Coincidence has it that Fisk is also the man Halliday is searching for, Fisk having robbed the U.S. Army of 300,000$ dollars that Halliday was supposed to safely transfer from one deposit location to another back in the States. Soon enough, everybody is after somebody, including the mysterious man from the beginning, who turns out to be Halliday’s military superior and blames the protagonist for the missing cash, and a Mexican Inspector General (Ramon Navarro), who wants to get to the bottom of all the rumpus.
Not all noir must be drenched in especially gritty, dark subject matter with by moody cinematography. There are times when the overall story fits the mould, yet the tone is much lighter, making for a breezy, amusing viewing experience. Such is the case with Don Siegal’s picture, which makes sense given that the film clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes. Just how much heavy material can a screenwriter and director shove into a film that falls well, well under the usual hour and a half mark? Rather than go for plenty of gut wrench and drama, the filmmakers opt to create a sense of playfulness, with a script that puts the emphasis on engaging character interactions, all the while keeping any lofty pretentious firmly in check.
The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ become something of an afterthought about midway through the film, the main focus being, as far as plot is concerned, that Halliday and Graham have to catch up with Fisk before the Inspector General and Halliday’s superior catch up with them. The simplicity of the story allows many of the character moments to shine ever so brightly, with special mention going to, perhaps unsurprisingly, whatever scenes shared by Mitchum and Greer. Having an onscreen history together helps create an immediate bond, the benefices of which are twofold. First, the actors themselves are evidently comfortable with one another and aided by the snappy lines they get to toss at one another (which was also the case in Out of the Past, incidentally enough), each is having plenty of easy fun. Second, viewers who have seen their previous film together know that witty sparks will certainly fly between the two, therefore right off the bat the audience gets to be in on the fun in addition to the actors. If there was ever a pair that knew how to bicker sweetly, in the sense that despite their differences, everybody knows that they will end up together, with each confrontation only further enhancing their undeniable chemistry, it was Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. Compounding their bond is the fact that Mitchum’s character is ill-versed in Spanish, hence constantly relies on his female equal who speaks the language fluently. That being said, Mitchum and Greer are not the only two actors enjoying pithy lines and quirky character traits. Ramon Navarro is charming as the Mexican lawman who gently plays the pawns in a manner that will help him catch the true villain, not with any maliciousness or sense of villainy, but rather because he does not seem to have much more to do and finds the entire affair to be most curious or, dare it be written, amusing even. His own insistence on speaking English (and mispronouncing certain names and words in the process) builds up a running joke of people being either forced to communicate in a language they would rather not, or wilfully communicating in a language they have yet to master.
For all that has been written up until now about how frivolous Steal is, there may be an interesting idea or two gestating beneath its fancy surface level. Here is a film in which several people are strangers in a relatively strange land, with no ties or support system to help them out. To that extent, it is noticeable how several of them either make up various stories about themselves or keep their true intentions hidden from others. Halliday poses as his own superior officer when first confronted with the Inspector. The latter does not reveal to either Halliday, Graham, Fisk or the military officer who he believes to be the real villain, presenting a friendly facade to each one of them. Halliday and Greer refuse to reveal too much about one another early on, keeping their real intents private. Fisk, played with the right level of sleaze by Knowles, is continuously foxing his way out of predicaments, taking advantage of other people’s gullibility. Not only are people having trouble exchanging conversation due to the language barrier, but they add on to the problems by lying about either who they are or what they are after, therefore taking advantage of everyone’s cultural disadvantage of sorts. Who knows if the movie is actually commenting on issues of identity or not, but the notion may spark some ideas.
Steal is not the sort of mystery film that will leave viewers on the edge of their seats. Don Siegal and his team keep things as light as can be, relying primarily on witty jokes about Americans trying to get around in a Hispanic country and some easy chemistry between the cast members. In fact, there is one very well devised and depicted brawl during the film’s climax, although it almost feels out of place given how intensely rough it is when compared to the harmless nature of everything that preceded it, as if the filmmakers felt obligated to insert at least one major action scene just to satisfy the masses. While film noir on the whole is better served when being more audacious than this, Steal should still bring a smile to one’s face.