Newly-arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico, army fugitive Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum) eludes pursuing policeman Captain Blake (William Bendix) and sets out to track down Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles), the man who framed him for stealing the army payroll. Posing as Blake, Duke breaks into Fiske’s hotel room only to find the devious con man has fled the scene, leaving fiancée Joan Graham (Jane Greer) alone in the shower. Soon they’re on the lam together. As Joan starts piecing the truth together about Fiske, her antagonistic relationship with Duke blossoms into romance, but the relentless Blake remains hot on their trail.
Based on the short story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser, RKO studios purchased the screen rights from Columbia Pictures - where it was at various times mooted as a vehicle for Chester Morris, George Raft and even a Spanish language picture - as an opportunity to re-team stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer after the classic Out of the Past a.k.a. Build My Gallows High (1947). Whereas that was a dreamy, doom-laden, darkly romantic film noir, The Big Steal was an altogether more lighthearted affair. Although something of a rush job with a stop-and-start production structured around Mitchum’s then-recent marijuana bust and Greer’s pregnancy, along with a plot that is more or less one long chase, the finished film is assembled with wit and style.
Expertly handled by Don Siegel, the script is a model of brisk, economical efficiency, keeping the characters on the move, feeding information as things charge along and packing some good twists, witty asides worthy of a screwball comedy and scene-stealing supporting characters. Notably Ortega (Ramon Novarro) the Mexican police captain whose English might not be as good as he thinks it is, but who nevertheless proves smarter than everyone else. Dependable character actor William Bendix is also memorable as the increasingly exasperated Blake. One wonders whether the screenwriters of Romancing the Stone (1984) drew at least some inspiration from this zesty comedy-thriller given the evocative Latin milieu, presence of a brawny, deceptively amoral hero, duplicitous policeman plus a heroine named Joan who throughout the course of an adventure discovers a resourcefulness she never knew she had, share something in common with that Eighties action favourite.
It could be argued that wit and pace were the defining characteristics throughout Siegel’s eclectic career, whether crime classics like The Lineup (1958) and Charley Varrick (1973), his iconic science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), underrated John Wayne western The Shootist (1976) and of course, breakout smash hit Dirty Harry (1971). Here he crafts taut set-pieces (especially the car chase and shootout on the rocks) and wisely centralises the sparky and vivacious characters etched by a charismatic Mitchum and Greer, whilst including some rather beautiful shots of the Mexican scenery without making the film look like a travelogue. Sadly, it seems the film is most widely available in a colourised version. Thanks a lot, Ted Turner.