The Big Steal (1949)

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*. Does the plot here make any sense? Why does Blake think that Duke has the money if he was in with Fiske on the heist from the start? If Seton and Fisk are staying at the same hotel in Veracruz, why doesn’t Fiske just give him the money there instead of driving across the country to his secret hacienda? What is Fiske’s relationship with Joan? Why does a guy with a suitcase full of $300,000 want to con a girl out of a measly two grand? And when did he hook up with her in the first place?
*. This was Don Siegel’s third feature, but he’d been working in the business for a while and knew what he was doing. What really stands out is his ability to fashion exciting and creative action scenes. Even the fistfights are made pretty interesting, what with Duke kicking Blake into a pillar that knocks him out, and Fiske kneeing Duke in the head when they tussle in the hotel room. Then, in the final showdown, instead of sucker-punching Duke, Fiske crosses an elbow into his face. Surprise!

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*. Then there is that long car chase through the mountains. Yes, it suffers from the usual rear projection effects, but overall it’s pretty darn thrilling. Those mountain roads don’t look safe at any speed, and the cars dart through traffic in a heart-stopping manner. A sheep and a cow are only barely avoided and at one point a chicken attempting to cross the road is smashed into a pinwheel of feathers. I don’t think you’d get away with a shot like that today. Animal rights activists would be all over you.
*. Basically the entire movie is one long chase, a cat-and-mouse game played out on the highway, with a constant command for others to “get out of the way!” It’s just one obstruction after another.

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*. I wish the Mexican police Inspector-General (played by silent star Ramon Novarro) had a larger role. I was really expecting him to appear at the end and save the day. I think that would have made a better ending. Instead, he’s simply dropped.
*. Robert Mitchum. David Thomson calls him “one of the best actors in the movies” but registers the negative first impression he usually makes, introducing him as “the man mocked throughout his career for listlessness, inertia, hooded eyes, and lack of interest.”
*. I tend to side with that casual first impression. Mitchum rarely gives me the sense of any of those deep waters supposedly running beneath the still surface. In The Night of the Hunter you know his cool preacher is acting a part, and as he gets closer to all that money the dreary façade starts to crack. That’s what makes that role work. But here his Duke Halliday is in the more familiar Mitchum mold. He should be a man on the edge. He’s desperate and on the run, yet the only evidence of strain is an occasional untidiness in his hair after a fistfight. Even when Fiske gives him the slip and Blake is closing in all he says to Joan is “I’m dead.” He does so with both hands in his pockets and with an air of total nonchalance. Then it’s Greer who has to think of a way out.
*. Those were the days. Just before filming Mitchum was busted for possession of pot. The actress originally slated to play Joan backed out because appearing alongside a felon might have been damaging to her career. So in stepped Greer, who had just starred opposite Mitchum in Out of the Past.
*. Mitchum’s jail term caused some problems with the shooting of the film as well, outlined by Richard Jewell in his commentary. The script had to be streamlined and parts of the movie had to be shot around his not being available. This might also have led to some of the plot incongruities already noted.
*. I was surprised to hear Jewell say on the commentary track that there isn’t much action in this film. There’s a lot. At least four big fights, a very long car chase sequence, and a gun battle. All in only 71 minutes.
*. Why would cash be considered “hot” goods for an experienced fence like Seton? A pile of money of any size should be no problem for him to handle, and yet he makes it out to be a huge inconvenience. Were the bills marked? Why would they be? And so why would “getting rid” of the money be more trouble than dealing in those ancient artifacts (presumably stolen, or at least suspiciously acquired) that he collects?
*. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people get hung up on the noir label when discussing this movie. Are the labels that important? I don’t think so, but I’ll play along. For the record, I don’t think this is noir at all. The only good reason for considering it as such is because it rides in on the coattails of Out of the Past with the same stars. The reason I disqualify it isn’t because of the lack of night-time scenes or noir lighting, but the absence of noir themes and the noir sensibility. Mitchum is not a conflicted, morally dubious or compromised character and Greer is not a femme fatale. The good guys are good guys here, and the bad guys bad. It’s an action comedy that’s fast and full of fun, handled with professionalism throughout and quite entertaining.

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