Sitting in the longer and darker shadow of ‘Out of the Past’, it’s understandable that the lighter-hearted ‘The Big Steal’ might get no respect. At just 71 minutes, it’s shorter, slighter and nothing like as memorable.
However, slighter doesn’t have to mean lesser as far as enjoyment goes and ‘The Big Steal’ is a very easy film to like. Even Bosley Crowther, the high-toned windbag who held the film desk at the 'New York Times' for several decades found it appealing. From his review, July 11, 1949:
"A breath-taking scenic excursion across the landscape of Mexico through villages, on lovely open roads and over towering mountains on switchback highways at a fast and sizzling pace. It seems that a certain tricky fellow, whom Patric Knowles suavely enacts, is trying to escape into the interior of Mexico from Vera Cruz with a load of swag. Seems that his stubborn pursuer is a curious gent played by Robert Mitchum who is accompanied by a lady, prettily played by Jane Greer. Seems that another desperate party, William Bendix is after both and a Mexican police inspector, Ramon Novarro is tailing the lot. Just where and why they are fleeing is rather loosely explained but obviously they are not friendly people for whenever any of them get together they usually fight. But that is not important and we casually advise that you try not to follow too closely the involution of the plot."
Fair enough. But what's needed now is a case made for ‘The Big Steal’ as film noir. Although the picture has a sunnier disposition, there still are arguments for it as a noir. And as the late Arthur Lyons, author of 'Death on the Cheap: the Lost B Movies of Film Noir' liked to say, "it all starts with the story".
Lt. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) has been framed for a robbery and is in pursuit of the real thief, Jim Fiske (Knowles). Meantime Halliday is also on the run from his boss, Cpt. Vincent Blake (Bendix) whose reasons for pursuing Halliday are nothing like as straightforward as they first appear.
Eventually a disillusioned Halliday takes the law into his own hands as 'The ‘Big Steal’ covers some of the same narrative ground as later films by its director Don Siegel. Both Siegel's signature neo-noirs ‘Madigan’ (1968) and ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971) feature cops who defy authority to set things right even if justice done sometimes looks more like vengeance.
However Siegel whose other classic noirs include 'Private Hell 36' (1954), 'Riot in Cell Block 11' (1954), 'The Line-Up' (1957) doesn't let his characters hang around for long to dwell on the niceties. The director's preference was to cut to the chase. As a former film editor and second-unit man he learned early how to make pictures taut and lean and to get the most out of an action sequence. ‘The Big Steal’ tears along with as many plot twists thrown in as the movie reasonably can handle.
Mitchum and Greer once again make a great screen twosome. The loose stroppiness of the relationship Holmes has written for them brings out the best in both actors. Mitchum is laconic but alert and Greer delivers one of the most appealing performances of her career (interestingly she came late to the production, replacing Lizabeth Scott who was pulled off the project after Mitchum was arraigned on a marijuana rap). As note-perfect as she was as Cathie Moffat in 'Out of the Past’, director Jacques Tourneur really didn’t give her much more than just that one note to play as a somewhat impassive
femme fatale. However there’s nothing at all impassive about the wonderfully peppery Joan Graham.
Though ‘The Big Steal’ is high-spirited, it's no breezy comedy-suspenser. Its tongue is occasionally in its cheek but there's no archness of a kind poisonous to noir. Siegel is no smirking Hitchcock. ‘The Big Steal’ with its play on betrayal, greed and corruption plus the resonant exchange of tough words and hard fists is still film noir however amiable it may be.