A few years ago I caught a late-1940s Robert Mitchum movie on AMC called The Big Steal. Mitchum played an Army lieutenant on the run in Mexico, trying to absolve himself of a stolen payroll for which he’d been framed. His feminine foil was Jane Greer, as a woman disillusioned and exploited by her playboy lover (portrayed by Patric Knowles). Rife with crackling dialogue and great south-of-the-border scenery, the film also hooked me with an epic chase scene (in which Greer, not Mitchum, is the driver), a progressive-for-its-time treatment of the leading lady and the Mexican police officers, and an engaging chemistry between the two stars. Was there a better personification of late-1940s, blase postwar cool than Robert Mitchum? And Jane Greer came across as a tough, smart and lovely femme sans the fatale.
At the time I still hadn’t seen Out of the Past, the 1947 Mitchum-Greer noir vehicle that is now considered a classic of American cinema–nor did I know that The Big Steal, shot on location in Mexico, was the first picture Mitchum made after his Hollywood-scandal pot bust (which evidently may have been somewhat of a real-life frame-up). In fact, Mitchum’s first leading lady for the film, Lizabeth Scott, bailed on him because of the bust, and other actresses didn’t exactly rush to ask for the role–it was his Out of the Past partner Greer who eventually stepped in to fill it. In doing so she upended the fast-codifying notion that a strong female character in a noir film must mean bad business (even if this movie is, as some critics have observed, not a pure noir–more like a “screwball noir”). Her character is much more savvy than Mitchum’s when it comes to negotiating Mexican culture of all kinds, and her sensual appeal–rendered here with a considerably lighter touch than in Out of the Past–is just as convincing in its less sinister guise. There’s a strong streak of proto-feminism in her portrayal that strikes me as unusual for the period (more usual is the film’s positioning of returning vets as both victims and victimizers in post-WWII America).
The film was directed by Don Siegel, who would go on to make Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Private Hell 36, and Dirty Harry. It also featured William Bendix… yes, that ubiquitous lug, Mr. Life of Riley himself, who pops up in several noir films of the 1940s–perhaps most notably in the Raymond Chandler-penned The Blue Dahlia, where Bendix plays a war-damaged vet named Buzz who goes into histrionics whenever he hears the blare of loud, modern jazz…”Stop playin’ that monkey music!” is the anguished cry he always gives in response. (For more on jazz-as-torture in film noir, check out Phil Ford’s musings on The Big Combo over at Dial M for Musicology.)
Several months ago The Big Steal was reissued on DVD, both as a twofer with Edward G. Robinson’s Illegal and as part of a larger noir box-set. Although it’s destined to live forever in the shadows of its legendary predecessor, The Big Steal makes for a great B side to Out of the Past’s critical-smash A-side. You can watch the trailer and a clip from the movie at Noir of the Week. Favorite line from Jane Greer: “You see, when I hear sad stories I cry, and when I cry I can’t drive.”