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DVD SAVANT

Illegal
and
The Big Steal
Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Warners' Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4 collects ten titles probably classified in the 'Low "A"' to 'High "B"' range, encompassing films from Warners, RKO and MGM with a Monogram oddity thrown in for good measure. Robert Mitchum appears in two features and Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden in one apiece; Edward G. Robinson, Van Heflin, Charles Bronson, Farley Granger and Richard Basehart are present as well, giving the set a wide variety of acting styles. And the femme fatales and ladies in distress are an even more interesting cross section: Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Faith Domergue, Cathy O'Donnell, Jane Greer, Jayne Mansfield, Phyllis Kirk, Sally Forrest, Jan Sterling and the elusive Jean Gillie.

The five double bill discs are all available separately. This particular one contains Warners' 1955 Illegal and RKO's 1949 The Big Steal. Neither are central noir films, except that both have heroes enmeshed in out-of-control circumstances.


Illegal
Warner DVD
19 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 88 min. / Street Date July 31, 2007 / 20.98 or 59.92 in the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4 boxed set
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe, Robert Ellenstein, DeForest Kelley, Jay Adler, Albert Dekker, Jan Merlin, Ellen Corby, Jayne Mansfield
Cinematography J. Peverell Marley
Art Direction Stanley Fleischer
Film Editor Thomas Reilly
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by W.R. Burnett, James R. Webb from the play The Mouthpiece by Frank J. Collins
Produced by Frank P. Rosenberg
Directed by Lewis Allen

This rather economical vehicle is actually a second remake of Frank J. Collins' 1932 The Mouthpiece with Warren William, which was first remade in 1940 as The Man Who Talked Too Much, with George Brent. Its melodramatic turns and rather overblown characters culminate in Edward G. Robinson using flashy courtroom tricks that went out of style years before, like swallowing real poison. But Robinson's Victor Scott character has made a strange semi-amoral pact with the forces of the underworld, which does engender at least a hint of the noir mood.

Synopsis:

Honest District Attorney Victor Scott (Edward G. Robinson) takes it hard when a man he sent to the electric chair turns out to have been innocent. After falling into drunkenness and disrepute, Scott starts defending common criminals and is so successful that he attracts the attention of crime lord Frank Garland (Albert Dekker). Victor takes mob money until his one-time assistant Ellen Miles (Nina Foch) is accused of murder and informing on the crime investigators. Only Victor can get Ellen off the hook, but he may pay with his life for doing so.

Edward Robinson could still play the tough guy, and he gives Victor Scott plenty of vitality, even if the character is not particularly believable. Blaming himself, he sinks to the gutter, only to become a ruthless mob attorney for hard cash. Victor has decided that he's not the romantic match for his aide Ellen, who would have him in a heartbeat but settles for second-best legal assistant Ray Borden (fundamentally shifty Hugh Marlowe) instead. Sure enough, the oddest people turn out to be crooks, and a wild mix-up frames Ellen for someone else's crime. Victor steps up with more courtroom shenanigans and a noble self-sacrifice, and we've got a corny but lively crime show.

Except that crook Albert Dekker implies a massive organized underworld at work, Illegal just isn't particularly noir. Budgeted not much higher than a "B" attraction, it has mostly flat lighting and displays few directorial touches. Robinson holds the show together almost single-handed. Nina Foch is faithful and Hugh Marlowe is, uh, shifty. It's fun seeing DeForest Kelley as the man unjustly sent to death row. Lovable Ellen Corby is Robinson's faithful office girl and young Jayne Mansfield (pictured in profile on the poster above) is a dumbbell singer-girlfriend of a big mobster. She reads lines like she doesn't know what they mean.


The disc of Illegal benefits greatly from a commentary with Patricia King Hanson of the AFI, with the participation of Ms. Nina Foch. The featurette Marked for Life is interesting but also cannot squeeze much 'noir' out of this particular title. A Warner Bros. TV show promoting the film has an amusingly blatant marketing approach.


The Big Steal
Warner DVD
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 71 min. / Street Date July 31, 2007 / 20.98 or 59.92 in the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4 boxed set
Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, John Qualen
Cinematography Harry J. Wild
Art Direction Ralph Berger, Albert S. D'Agostino
Film Editor Samuel E. Beetley
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Gerald Drayson Adams, Geoffrey Homes from a story by Richard Wormser
Produced by Jack J. Gross, Sid Rogell
Directed by Don Siegel

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer of Out of the Past back together again? Fantastic! Unfortunately,The Big Steal is no Out of the Past but instead a light caper & chase road picture that often veers into outright comedy. Greer, Mitchum and their dogged pursuer William Bendix make for an exciting trio, and the film might best be considered as a proto-thriller precursor to Romancing the Stone. Greer's character is a common-sense good girl and not a seductive siren. Mitchum is just a nice guy with a yen for a pretty girl, and a rather annoying problem with a fortune in stolen government cash.

Synopsis:

Lt. Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum) pursues Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles) into Mexico for framing him for the theft of an Army payroll. Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix) pursues them both, but Duke takes Blake's I.D. and uses it to continue chasing Fiske. Duke also ends up traveling with Joan Graham (Jane Greer), a woman that Fiske pretended to be engaged to, before taking a large sum of money from her on false pretenses. The danger mounts for Joan and Duke as they get further into Mexico, all the while being watched by the attentive Mexican Inspector General Ortega (Ramón Novarro.

The Big Steal is said to have been cooked up overnight as an excuse for Howard Hughes' lawyers to spring Robert Mitchum from the work farm after his trumped-up pot bust. At the time nobody knew if Mitchum's career would be over, so Ms. Greer was asked to play his romantic partner at the last moment. Robert got his livelihood back but it was just another job for Jane Greer.

Much of the film was actually shot in Mexico, presumably under an open-ended co-production experiment Hughes had going down there to save money on production. If anything the films were more costly, but The Big Steal benefits from its real locations. The principal players are indeed racing across the Mexican countryside in their late-forties sedans.

For a lovers-on-the-run epic, the show is cute but never entirely compelling. If we can't guess who the bad guys are, we are at least certain that Mitchum's Duke is in the clear, so nothing ever becomes particularly tense. Ramón Novarro's Mexican cop is supposed to be suspect, but the film's overly-respectful presentation of all things Mexican smacks of local censorship. Pretty girls abound, but almost all of them are decoratively chaste. The usually meek John Qualen is a nasty bad guy, which would be a nice change of pace if Qualen didn't look like such a pushover.

The best thing in the movie is watching William Bendix's frustrated Army Captain suffer at the pranks left in his path by Mitchum and Greer. First they sabotage his car, and then they tell a road repair crew (make that a polite, sympathetic and courteous road repair crew) that he's a bad father trying to prevent their elopement. When Mitchum and Bendix finally meet up, their stunt doubles give each other one hell of a beating, I kid you not.

The fun and unpretentious thriller The Big Steal has its share of enthusiastic supporters. A noir film? I never really thought so.

The Big Steal comes with an amusing featurette called Look Behind You that runs through the film's cannibis-scented genesis and assures us that Mitchum and Greer were the best of pals. Rocco Gioffre once brought me an autographed picture of her, and said that even as a senior citizen, Greer in person was a real dreamboat. The commentary for The Big Steal is in the capable hands of Richard B. Jewell.


Like all the pictures in the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4, Illegal and The Big Steal are immaculately transferred, with punchy, clear audio. This has been a particularly rewarding set of additions to the noirs on DVD. If Warners continues, I hope they penetrate further into Allied Artists territory (The Phenix City Story! and remaster some of the less well-known but extremely atmospheric Warners noirs like The Unsuspected, The Breaking Point and Nora Prentiss. And will we ever be able to see the old 1998 TCM round-table discussions with the great noir actresses and Scott Glenn? I fear that these are restricted by rights problems, which is a shame. Several of the great ladies are gone now, and they all made wonderful (and still seductive!) impressions.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Illegal & The Big Steal rate:
Movies: Both Good
Video: Both Excellent
Sound: Both Excellent
Supplements: Commentaries and Featurettes on both titles.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 1, 2007



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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