Friday, January 27, 2012

The Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards (1949)

Usually billed as a film noir, The Big Steal—the story of a guy chasing a guy chasing a girl chasing a guy who stole some money, with Jane Greer as the girl and Robert Mitchum as the man in the middle—is actually a screwball road picture, romantic comedy and wry commentary on the Ugly American (this time in Mexico), all rolled into 71 taut minutes.

Known at the time as the first film Mitchum made after his infamous marijuana bust (filming was interrupted for two months while he served his prison sentence), The Big Steal is really Jane Greer's picture. She's funny, she's smart, she's tender, she's tough, and she and Mitchum are very, very good together. Out of the Past made Greer a film noir legend, deservedly so, but The Big Steal is actually a better showcase for her talent.

That she also flew down to Mexico on forty-eight hours notice out of loyalty to Mitchum when no other actress would work with him only deepens my affection for this underrated actress.

She and Mitchum crack wise with each other throughout the film and the chemistry between them is palpable. Greer's best scene, though, is across from the foreman of a road repair crew (Pascual García Peña) as she tries to talk him into letting them pass. She tells him that she and Mitchum are eloping, and that her father, chasing them with a shotgun (really William Bendix, the first "guy" in the equation), wants her to marry a short, ugly man. She prefers the big, pretty one—"¿Verdad que es grande y hermoso, no?"

And the foreman looks at Mitchum, shrugs and says with a laugh, "Grande, sí. ¿Pero hermoso?"—which is to say, "Big, yes, but pretty?"

The film was directed by Don Siegel, who had cut his teeth putting together the Paris montage sequence in Casablanca, and who would later direct such classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry. His biggest achievement here, aside from some great car chases, was working around Mitchum's absence. Because co-star William Bendix had a prior commitment, he and Mitchum appear in only one scene together, the film's first. Thereafter, Siegel had to make due with stunt doubles, rear screen projection and careful editing.

That Bendix and Mitchum stage a convincing fist fight later in the movie without being in the same room together is a minor miracle.

Also look for Ramon Novarro as the Mexican police inspector. Fans of silent film may remember him as the title character in the 1925 verison of Ben-Hur. Like so many, his star fell when the talkies came in.

Despite the commercial and critical success of The Big Steal, there was no follow-up film for Greer. Indeed, it's a measure of the studio's desperation that she'd been cast at all. RKO owner Howard Hughes had vowed to wreck Greer's career after she refused to sleep with him, and wreck it he did. It took Greer three years to get out of her contract with the studio, by which time the public had largely forgotten her.

Finally free of RKO, she made a handful of films in the early 1950s, including Man of a Thousand Faces and a remake of The Prisoner of Zenda. After she nearly died from an infection suffered while filming Run for the Sun in the jungles of Mexico, Greer went into semi-retirement, playing occasional supporting roles, most memorably in Against All Odds, a loose remake of Out of the Past.


The ending of The Big Steal underscores for me the degree to which we watch movies rather than listen to them. If you watch the last scene, letting it flow over you, and with the expectations of the genre firmly established in your mind, you assume that Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer are going to pair off permanently at the end, get married, have ten kids. Nice.

On the other hand, if you listen to the words they are speaking, it's clear he's leaving town in the morning and she's staying put. And that makes sense. He's a lieutenant in the army, she has an important job in Mexico. If you read the scene on the printed page, you'd see it as a lament for the life they aren't going to have together.

But if you put the images together with the words they are speaking, it becomes clear that they are negotiating a one-night stand. Which is exactly as it should be—they are attractive, single people who have just finished a life-and-death adventure together, but who, let's face it, have little else in common. Why not?

That director Don Siegel contrived to say this in a way that passed muster with the censors during the era of the Production Code is a tribute to his ingenuity and his craft. He let your eyes tell you one thing, your ears another, and if you're really paying attention, you can decode his intentions. It's subtle, something the censors never were. It's one of those times when the lament "they don't make 'em like they used to" is fully justified.

winner: The Third Man (prod. Carol Reed)
nominees: All The King's Men (prod. Robert Rossen); Battleground (prod. Dore Schary); The Heiress (prod. William Wyler); A Letter to Three Wives (prod. Sol C. Siegel); The Set-Up (prod. Richard Goldstone); She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (prod. Merian C. Cooper and John Ford); They Live By Night (prod. John Houseman); Twelve O'Clock High (prod. Darryl F. Zanuck); White Heat (prod. Louis F. Edelman)

PICTURE (Comedy/Musical)
winner: Kind Hearts and Coronets (prod. Michael Balcon)
nominees: Adam's Rib (prod. Lawrence Weingarten); I Was A Male War Bride (prod. Sol C. Siegel); On The Town (prod. Arthur Freed); Whisky Galore! (prod. Michael Balcon)

PICTURE (Foreign Language)
winner: Banshun (Late Spring) (prod. Shôchiku Film)
nominees: Jour de fête (prod. Fred Orain and André Paulvé); Nora inu (Stray Dog) (prod. Sôjirô Motoki); Riso amaro (Bitter Rice) (prod. Dino De Laurentiis)

ACTOR (Drama)
winner: Kirk Douglas (Champion)
nominees: James Cagney (White Heat); Joseph Cotten (The Third Man); Broderick Crawford (All The King's Men); Toshiro Mifune (Nora inu a.k.a. Stray Dog); Gregory Peck (Twelve O'Clock High); Robert Ryan (The Set-Up); Chishu Ryu (Banshun a.k.a. Late Spring); John Wayne (She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Sands Of Iwo Jima)

ACTOR (Comedy/Musical)
winner: Gene Kelly (On The Town)
nominees: Cary Grant (I Was A Male War Bride); Danny Kaye (The Inspector General); Robert Mitchum (The Big Steal and Holiday Affair); Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets); Basil Radford (Whisky Galore!); Jacques Tati (Jour de fête); Spencer Tracy (Adam's Rib)

winner: Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress)
nominees: Jeanne Crain (Pinky); Joan Crawford (Flamingo Road); Linda Darnell (A Letter To Three Wives); Setsuko Hara (Banshun a.k.a. Late Spring); Alida Valli (The Third Man)

ACTRESS (Comedy/Musical)
winner: Jane Greer (The Big Steal)
nominees: Joan Greenwood (Kind Hearts and Coronets and Whisky Galore!); Katharine Hepburn (Adam's Rib); Ann Sheridan (I Was A Male War Bride)

winner: Carol Reed (The Third Man)
nominees: John Ford (She Wore A Yellow Ribbon); Akira Kurosawa (Nora inu a.k.a. Stray Dog); Yasujiro Ozu (Banshun a.k.a. Late Spring); Raoul Walsh (White Heat); William Wyler (The Heiress)

DIRECTOR (Comedy/Musical)
winner: Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets)
nominees: George Cukor (Adam's Rib); Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (On The Town); Howard Hawks (I Was A Male War Bride); Alexander Mackendrick (Whisky Galore!)

winner: Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets)
nominees: Paul Douglas (A Letter to Three Wives); Juano Hernandez (Intruder in the Dust); Trevor Howard (The Third Man); Victor McLaglen (She Wore A Yellow Ribbon); Ramon Novarro (The Big Steal); Ralph Richardson (The Heiress); David Wayne (Adam's Rib); Orson Welles (The Third Man); James Whitmore (Battleground)

winner: Mercedes McCambridge (All The King's Men)
nominees: Judy Holliday (Adam's Rib); Ann Miller (On the Town); Elizabeth Patterson (Intruder in the Dust); Margaret Wycherly (White Heat)

winner: Graham Greene (The Third Man)
nominees: Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (Adam's Rib); Robert Rossen, from the novel by Robert Penn Warren (All The King's Men); Robert Pirosh (Battleground); Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, from their play suggested by the novel Washington Square by Henry James (The Heiress); Robert Hamer and John Dighton, from the novel by Roy Horniman (Kind Hearts and Coronets)

Ray Harryhausen, Linwood G. Dunn, Willis H. O'Brien, Harold E. Stein, Herb Willis and Bert Willis (Mighty Joe Young) (Special Effects); Anton Karas (The Third Man) (Score); Robert Krasker (The Third Man) (Cinematography)


Mythical Monkey said...
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Beveridge D. Spenser said...

The Big Steal! One of my favorites, and so little known. I had assumed that this was partly made to give the cast and crew a Mexican vacation, but it sounds like it was far from that, what with the tricky logistics.

I second everything you say, and I'd like to add a word about Navarro. His character seems like a buffoon, because his English is so comical. But he's not as dime as he sounds.

dfordoom said...

The Big Steal has suffered from being labelled a film noir, which (as you say) it clearly isn't. But it's a fun picture.