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I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like to turn around, Chiquita. Besides, that there’s a guy behind me with a gun.

Movie

The Big Steal
(1949)

 

Only Don Siegel’s third feature as director, but as confidently-staged and tightly-paced as ever. At a mere seventy minutes, it’s so flighty that you’re left wanting more.

It helps that the plot is essentially one long chase, with interludes for hard-boiled banter. Robert Mitchum’s Lt. Duke Halliday arrives in Mexico in pursuit of oily crook Fisk (Patrick Knowles). Fisk robbed the army payroll and the Halliday got the blame. Or at least, that’s what Halliday claims. Halliday’s joined by Joan Graham (Jane Greer) who wants the $2,000 Fisk owes her. Halliday, in turn, is pursued by his commanding officer (William Bendix) while a couple of Mexican police officers (Ramon Novarro and Don Alvarado) survey what transpires with an amused reserve, confident that they will get their culprit in the end.

Siegel’s picture includes a number of film-noir ingredients, but it is a generally sunnier affair and not just in setting. Much of the action is taken up with the almost screwball back-and-forth between Mitchum and Greer; there’s nothing of the femme fatale about Joan, and Halliday might be a tough guy but he is far from the emotionally-remote male lead you’d expect. Indeed, the characters’ dialogue consistently grants them the status of equals; this is more Grant and Hepburn than Bogart and Bacall. None of this would be any odds if there weren’t a vibrant chemistry between the two actors.

Siegel never allows the escape-and-capture structure grow stale, and makes the most of a twist thrown in at the end. He also includes a chucklesome close-up a goat bleating when Bendix finds the road blocked by a herd of the animals (we were previously witness to an obligatory “chickens in the road” sequence, one where it looked like the birds mightn’t all have escaped with their feathers intact).

A word too on the absence of negative Mexican stereotypes; a point is made at the outset concerning the dismissive attitudes of Americans to Mexicans and the film proceeds to show the Yanks as intruders who can’t even be bothered to speak the language, and who cause no end of disruption in their country. The police officers are sophisticated, charming, and bi-lingual, with the Inspector General given to expressing himself in wise metaphors. Even the foreman of a road gang is shown to be sympathetic and helpful.

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