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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.
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.
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.
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:
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