Tuesday, May 11, 2010


"Out of the Past" leads Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer team up again in director Don Siegel's fast-paced, lightweight, romantic crime thriller "The Big Steal." Although "Crime by Night" scribe Daniel Mainwaring and "Dead Reckoning" writer Gerald Drayson Adams have penned a fairly conventional actioneer, the narrative exposes one vast difference between Americans and Mexicans. Americans work up a lather getting to where they are going, while the Hispanic populace takes it easy. Several times our fast and furious American protagonists find themselves being slowed down by the Hispanics who appear in no particular hurry to get things done. Not only does Siegel snap up the suspense, but he also turns this frenzied chase into a scenic travelogue.

The hero and heroine rampage from the port of Vera Cruz through sun-drenched Mexico after an elusive as well as larcenous criminal. Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles of "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman") owes Joan Graham (Greer) the sum of $2-thousand that she loaned to him. She has followed him below the border to retrieve her money. They were apparently going to get married. Meanwhile, it seems that Fiske has waylaid an Army Lieutenant, Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum) who was picking up a $300-thousand Army payroll to take back to the base. As the finance officer, Halliday was responsible for the loot. When he explains that Fiske robbed him, Captain Blake suspects Halliday put Fiske up to the robbery. Halliday goes AWOL to recover the loot and finds Captain Vincent Blake (tough guy William Bendix of "Guadalcanal Diary") in hot pursuit, too. The fight that Blake and Halliday get into at the outset of the action is pretty rough. Siegel appears to have accelerated the film so that Halliday's elbow blow against the unsuspecting Blake stuns the captain.

This nifty but notorious little B-picture went into production about the same time that Robert Mitchum was arrested for smoking marihuana. A large amount of action occurs on the roads as the characters careen through towns. Eventually, a sly Mexican police officer, Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ"), who is brushing up on his English, takes an interest in the activities of these Americans and has them shadowed. He intervenes at one point and everybody lingers at a hotel. Basically, "The Big Steal" (*** out of ****) unfolds like a game of cat and mouse. Fiske cleverly eludes Halliday and Graham while they elude a determined Blake. Blake goes to Inspector General Ortega and tells him that he has lost his credentials; specifically extradition papers to take Halliday back into custody and return him to America. Fiske literally erects roadblocks for our hero and heroine and they do likewise to Blake. At one point, Halliday loosens a flock of goats to block the road. A rather lengthy scene finds Halliday and Joan stalled on a remote road where a bridge is being torn up. The Mexican official is initially reluctant to help them. Furthermore, they cannot turn around and retrace their path because Blake breathing down their collective necks. Joan explains to the road superintendent that they are eloping, and her father doesn't like Halliday. She explains that her father wants her to marry "a short ugly man" and she prefers "a big pretty" man. Joan's lie prompts the road superintendent to create a momentary way through the construction so they can continue onto the highway.

The action concludes with a wilderness shoot-out. A guy named Cole armed with a revolver and a rifleman named Jose ambush Duke and Joan as they approach Seton hacienda. This Seton is the same Julius Seton that Joan encountered earlier in the plot. She almost destroyed a priceless artifact by distracting Seton's assistant. Now, in the fourth quarter, Seton reappears. We learn that he is a fence as well as a collector of priceless artifacts. Seton is paying Fiske $150-thousand for the hot $300-thousand. Duke kills Jose, but Cole gets the drop on both Duke and Joan. Cole brings Duke and Joan to Seton. Moments later Blake bursts in with his gun drawn. Fiske explains the deal about the $150-thousand and Blake agrees to split it with Fiske. As Fiske is leaving, Blake guns him down. Afterward, Blake assures Joan, "You can't trust a guy like that." Blake phones Inspector General Ortega that he was bringing Duke in for Ortega to arrest. Unfortunately, he adds, Duke tried to escape and he had to kill him. A fight erupts with Duke and Blake tangling again while Joan scuffles with Seton over a priceless artifact. Interestingly, their first encounter led to his assistant nearly dropping a priceless artifact. Seton doesn't fare so well in the second encounter that begins with Joan smashing a priceless artifact. Joan wounds Seton and Duke triumphs over Blake. The big revelation is that Blake and Fiske were accomplices. The picture wraps up with the leads observing mating ceremonies and then children parade pass them as if to suggest that procreation after marriage is the suitable thing to do.

Siegel does a nice job of helming this mayhem. The pace rarely slackens and the characters convey exposition about their predicaments without slowing down the action. Interesting enough, Siegel likes to show the shadow of some characters on the wall before he reveals who they are. When Blake approaches Halliday's state room aboard the ship, we see his shadow on the wall before we see him. Later, after Fiske leaves his hotel room with Joan in the shower, he heads down on hall while we see the shadow of Halliday approaching Fiske's door.