Blending the sarcastic interplay of a romantic-comedy with the punch and thrills of a fast-paced action flick The Big Steal was surprisingly entertaining. There’s a chemistry between Mitchum and Greer (previously seen together in the noir classic Out of the Past) that, while it falls short of Bogart and Bacall’s, has an undeniable charm which carries throughout the movie from their acrimonious introduction to their inevitable romance; interestingly Greer was late in signing on, taking the role as a favor to Mitchum who was having trouble following a marijuana bust. The supporting cast, particularly Novarro, all rise to the occasion whether alone or sharing the screen with the stars. Vibrant performances elevate what would otherwise have been a dime a dozen adventure to a giddy romp without straying into cheaps laughs or rote violence.
It’s not all fun and games, however, it’s a whodunnit. Captain Blake (Bendix) is gunning for Duke Halliday (Mitchum) who is accused to stealing hundreds of thousands in an army payroll heist. Halliday maintains that the money was actually stolen by pretty-boy Jim Fiske (Knowles) but no one believes him, even Fiske’s jilted fiancee Joan Graham (Greer) who’s just disembarked in Veracruz hunting after her vanished betrothed and the couple thousand he’d borrowed. Halliday ducks the pinch and heads after Fiske assuming Blake’s identity, bumping heads with Graham along the way. Graham catches Fiske as he’s setting out on a delivery job and holds the package while he arranges a car. Halliday finds Graham, drags her after Fiske and Fiske takes off out of town leaving Halliday in the dirt and Graham wondering if what Halliday (posing as Blake) says is true. Before they can find out the local police get involved and both Graham and Halliday find themselves before Inspector General Ortega (Novarro), an eager student of English under the tutelage of his Lt. Ruiz and a cunning detective behind his quick smile. Fiske is burning rubber to make his drop, Halliday and Graham are both hot on his trail, Blake is hot on theirs and Ortega and Ruiz are curious to see where this is all going.
With so much going on and such strong characters it’s almost a shame that there’s a chase at all. The most damaging decision made by the producers was to dedicate so much celluloid to cars tearing through the desert or, sadly, the desert tearing by in the background while the actors pretend to be driving. I understand that adding the thrilling high-speed element must have seemed necessary at the time and perhaps the sped up footage and layered shots were innovative enough at the time but the end result only serves to compound the sin of bad special effects with robbing time from the actors’ interactions.
Fortunately there are enough diversions along the way that force the cars out of the limelight. Mexico becomes a co-star from the canyons to the luxury hotels to the small towns along the road. It’s a joy to watch everyone grapple with these roadblocks and gives the characters the opportunity to develop a little personality. The least interesting by far is Jim Fiske who was either under-written or stiffly portrayed by Knowles, alternating between terse and impatient without any coloring. Bendix essentially reprises his casting from earlier appearances (The Blue Dahlia, The Glass Key) as the perpetually confused overgrown kid cursed with a big, clumsy body. However the sadism and cruelty have been stripped in this film which allows him to offer comedic-relief which, whether trying to clear the road of goats or screaming English at a Mexican road crew, he excels at. Mitchum handles his character with a self-assured, brash demeanor but his ability to sheepishly admit he’s out of his element balances what could have been a stilted performance. Greer’s no damsel in distress, elbowing her way through the men with her wits and sharp tongue. However she’s surprisingly vulnerable when confronting Fiske, offering a fuller compliment of emotion as the situation requires and doubling her workload as an actress.
The greatest delight for me was discovering Ramon Novarro who looks to have had a long but patchy career in Hollywood; he made his name starring in a silent production of Ben Hur but the only movie he’s starred in that I’ve even heard of was Mata Hari with Greta Garbo. Novarro approaches the all-knowing Inspector General in such an understated manner, refusing to act clever because he knows he is clever. The learning English schtick is well played and he uses his supposed handicap with the language to his advantage when he can’t play the various antagonists against one another. It’s a shame that his wasn’t a larger role in the movie.
Another surprise is how Mexico is respected. There are no drunken sombreros or Speedy Gonzalezes, just bit parts. The natives suffer the Americans with an honest graciousness and there’s no pandering to stereotypes or parody. The only problem is that on a couple of occasions, notably during a poolside scene in a luxury resort and the final scene in a plaza, we’re almost subjected to a tourism commercial. Still, at its worst it’s not as blatant or offensive as most location productions of the time.
It’s not the work of an auteur; although director Don Siegel would periodically percolate to the surface of cinema his career was strictly third tier. The camera work is standoffish, allowing the talented roster room to breath, unless there was some horrible special effects to commit. Solid, entertaining, witty and charming it shakes free of some genre conventions and everyone has a good time.
This came bundled with Illegal, is presented in all of its full frame glory, and has clean sound. Widely available for rental, I’m quite sure. Screenshots stolen from Modern Times and Cinema Asparagus.