Big Steal, The (1949): Don Siegel’s Film Noir, Reteaming Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer After Successful Collaboration in the 1947 Noir, Out of the Past

Don Siegel directed The Big Steal, a taut, well-constructed film noir, which reteamed the 1947 Out of the Past stars, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

The film is based on the short story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser.

U.S. Army lieutenant Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum) is robbed of $300,000 payroll by Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). When Halliday’s superior, Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix), suspects that he took part in the theft, Halliday pursues Fiske into Mexico.

Along the way, he runs into Joan Graham (Jane Greer), who is after the $2000 she loaned to her boyfriend, Fiske. The two join forces, though they are not sure if they can trust each other.

Fiske stays one step ahead of the couple, while they are chased by Blake. When Halliday is knocked down trying to stop Fiske from getting away, he comes to the attention of Police Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro).

Halliday claims to be Blake, using identification he took from the captain after a brawl. Ortega lets him go after Fiske, but his suspicions are confirmed when the real Blake shows up at his office for help.

Halliday and Graham track Fiske in the desert, where Fiske is meeting with Seton (John Qualen), a fence who offers Fiske $150,000 in untraceable bills in exchange for the payroll. The couple are captured by Seton’s henchmen. When Blake shows up, Halliday is initially relieved to be rescued, until he learns that Blake is actually Fiske’s partner.

Fiske wants to take Graham, but Blake intends to dispose of both her and Halliday. Fiske reluctantly gives in. However, when he starts to leave, Blake shoots him in the back, explaining that his ex-partner can take the blame for the missing payroll.

Halliday points out to Seton that if Blake gets rid of him too, he can give the stolen money back to the army and keep the $150,000 for himself.  Seton pulls a gun on Blake, and when Graham makes a distraction, a fight breaks out that Graham and Halliday win.

The movie was shot in Los Angeles and in Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico.

The film benefited from sparkling dialogues, fast-paced chases and some twists and turns.

George Raft originally was meant to play the lead but was replaced by Robert Mitchum, after the latter was arrested in 1948 for possession of marijuana. RKO owner Howard Hughes saw Mitchum’s notoriety surrounding the arrest as a positive that would boost attention for a rather low-rent production. It was a proven scheme for Hughes, who, immediately following the arrest, had pushed for another of Mitchum’s pictures, Rachel and the Stranger, to be released sooner in order to capitalize on the headlines. As a result, it became one of the year’s biggest hits.

Lizabeth Scott was set to play Joan Graham, but due to the controversy surrounding Mitchum’s recent marijuana drug arrest and short jail sentence, she pulled out three weeks before filming. Howard Hughes had been keeping Greer, a former girlfriend, from appearing in any RKO films in an attempt to ruin her career, finally hired her when no other female lead was available. The married Greer had earned Hughes’ enmity by refusing to date him.

Cast

Robert Mitchum as Lt. Duke Halliday
Jane Greer as Joan Graham
William Bendix as Capt. Vincent Blake
Patric Knowles as Jim Fiske
Ramon Novarro as Inspector General Ortega
Don Alvarado as Lt. Ruiz
John Qualen as Julius Seton
Pascual García Peña as Manuel

Credits:

Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Gerald Drayson Adams, Daniel Mainwaring, Geoffrey Homes, based on “The Road to Carmichael’s” 1942 story in The Saturday Evening Post by Richard Wormser
Produced by Jack J. Gross
Cinematography Harry J. Wild
Edited by Samuel E. Beetley
Music by Leigh Harline
Distributed by RKO Pictures
Release date: July 1, 1949 (US)
Running time 71 minutes
Box office $1.6 million