Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Siegel Film: The Big Steal (1949)

The second in a series of appreciations of the work of director Don Siegel, courtesy of the current retrospective of his work at New York's Film Forum.

Don Siegel's third film, after The Verdict and the Ronald Reagan vehicle Night After Night, is the light-hearted actioner The Big Steal. Made in 1949, it reteams Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer two years after they flirted to death in Out of the Past. It also boasts the same screenwriter(and novelist), Daniel Mainwaring, who is also credited as contributing to Anthony Mann's stellar The Tall Target (1951), Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955), and Siegel's own Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Baby Face Nelson (1957). He later wrote an episode of Mannix. If anyone has any more info about this individual, please send it my way.

The Big Steal is a lithe piece of work. Mitchum is chasing after the pencil-moustachioed Patric Knowles, who stole the Army's payroll money that Mitch was hired to deliver. Mitch in turn is being chased by his boss, the meaty William Bendix, who fingers him for the crime. Off a ship in Vera Cruz, Mitch meets cute with Jane Greer, and the rest of the film documents their playful mutual seduction as they avoid getting shot. The film is an hour and a half of bemused courting, the scattered violence material for the two would-be lovers to riff on. The power relations shift continually: Greer can speak Spanish, leaving Mitchum helpless in public - while in the private criminal world of men it's Mitchum who lays out the bad guys. Both rip the other for these shortcomings. It's a pose, their emotions coming out only when reading each other's bodies, Greer staunching his nosebleed, Mitchum, well, laying out the bad guys. In the climax they speak in looks to initiate the final assault - the repartee receding in the face of bodily menace.

It's a Mitchum film more than a Siegel one - the actors have their way, and the action set-pieces are a bit rote, especially an extended car chase that runs endlessly with a minimum of tension, saved only by Mitchum's contented smirk. Only his suit gets ruffled.


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