Like any good script, The Big Steal starts as late into the story as possible. Aboard an ocean liner that's just docked in Veracruz, Mexico, William Bendix bursts into Robert Mitchum's cabin holding a gun. He's after something he believes Mitchum stole. Mitchum says he doesn't have it. “You’ve got the wrong man,” Mitchum says. Bendix isn’t buying it. He moves to arrest Mitchum. Mitchum overpowers Bendix, knocking him out. Mitchum takes Bendix's gun and identification. The identification reads: Captain Vincent Blake of the US Army.
After debarking, Mitchum crosses paths with Jane Greer. It's a short meeting, as Mitchum has to duck out of sight as Bendix emerges from the ship. Once the coast is clear, Mitchum tries to catch a cab, only to find Greer has gotten the last one.
Cut to a room inside the Hotel Mexico. We see Patric Knowles packing. He’s in a rush. His eyes are darting around. There's a knock at the door. Knowles pulls a gun and moves to the side of the door, ready to plug whoever comes in. Then we hear Greer's voice, telling him to open up. We learn that Knowles is Greer's fiancee. But she's not there to marry him, she's there because he ran off with her savings, about two thousand dollars. She wants it back.
Knowles tries to sweet talk her, but Greer cuts him off saying, "The last time you did that it cost me my bank account." Knowles tries to make her feel bad for harping on him about the money saying, "There's that dollar sign again." But Greer snaps back, "Where? I don't see it. Come on, hand it over." Then, dripping with sarcasm, "I was saving that money for my trousseau.”
Knowles gives Greer the slip, and a few beats later we learn that Mitchum is after Knowles too.
Thus, the film is set. It’s one big chase. Bendix chases Mitchum who, along with Greer, chases Knowles. Mitchum and Greer form an uneasy partnership as they travel across the Mexican countryside from Veracruz to Tehuacán1. As the story unfolds we learn what was stolen, and who did the stealing. Mitchum and Greer warm to each other. Everything culminates in a surprising, but satisfying finale.
On paper, it's another forgettable lower-budget entry from RKO, the once premier studio that had fallen to disarray under Howard Hughes. But thanks to a crackerjack script, The Big Steal is better than it probably had any right to be.
Consider how little information we're given as the movie begins. Rather than open with a flashback or exposition, we’re thrown right into one unnamed man confronting another over an event we know nothing about. That’s great storytelling. But it’s when Greer confronts Knowles that the script really sparkles.
It's refreshing to see such an independent female character. She's self assured without being arrogant. Insistent without being whiny. The script may leave the fisticuffs to the men, but Greer's character holds her own in the numerous bouts of verbal sparring.
The script also does a great job of subverting our expectations. From the anything-but-inept Mexican police inspector, to Greer—not Mitchum—being the one to get them out of various jams, the script defies the genre’s conventions.
And topping it all off, there's a nice touch where Mitchum actually wears some of the results of his tussles. From a bloody nose to a beaten face, the film’s fights have visible consequences. Something all too rare in Hollywood.
Granted, it's not a perfect film. The extended car chase feels tacked on and forced. And Knowles and Bendix don't quite hold their own against Mitchum and Greer in terms of star wattage. But really, these are weaknesses instead of faults. The Big Steal takes a B-movie plot and elevates it to near greatness thanks to a well-crafted script peppered with crackling dialog.
They actually shot in Mexico, which helps to belie the film’s modest budget.
Grade: B- ↩