The script’s by Daniel Mainwaring and his novelist pen name Geoffrey Homes (which is a neat trick), the names behind the source novel and Jacques Tourner’s infamous film noir Out Of The Past from two years earlier. But, it’s also credited to Gerald Drayson Adams, the writer for James Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning. I mention all this not to suggest that postwar film noirs were made in a creatively incestuous community (they kind of were) as much as to give the often overlooked 1949 RKO crime thriller The Big Steal its well-deserved cred. Since it also re-teams noir icons Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, it ought to be a must-see.
The Big Steal isn’t the dark, provocative and soul-searching kind of noir that Tourneur’s Out Of The Past was. This is more of twisty-turny thrill ride. Here Mitchum’s a soldier wrongly accused of a payroll theft. Greer’s the screwed-over ex of the real thief, and they reluctantly team up to track down the culprit, with Mitchum’s superior officer hot on their trail. Good guys turn out to be bad guys (which keeps the viewer wondering about our two stars as well) and all is resolved through lots of fast-paced chases, abductions, fights and shoot-outs, managing a lot of story and action in just a little over an hour.
A B-movie? Yes, it is. But it’s put together by crime and noir pro’s, stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (never looking lovelier with her bouncy short hair) and the bottom line is, The Big Steal is 100% fun to watch.
RKO’s 1951 The Company She Keeps probably doesn’t belong at the top of any of the key players’ resumes. Still, it was directed by James Cromwell, who helmed one of my favorite postwar film noir classics, Dead Reckoning (1947), with Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. And Scott stars here, alongside fellow film noir icon, Jane Greer.
Greer plays a check forger just released from prison, while Scott is her helpful parole officer. Generosity is repaid when Greer steals Scott’s boyfriend, which could be a nifty setup for a nasty revenge tale. Instead, there’s some business with a workplace theft frame job and things working out just fine (more or less) in the end. A deep, dark or hard-boiled film noir this isn’t. A well-done crime melodrama led by two of noir’s best actresses? Oh, it’s that, all right.
But, it is an opportunity to watch two of film noir’s best-known actors paired together on screen. Lizabeth Scott is credited with starring in more postwar films noir than any other actress. And if Jane Greer’s iconic femme fatale performance in Jacques Tourner’s 1947 Out Of The Past was the only entry on her resume, it’d still be impressive. So, look for this one for the two stars, if not for the story.
A side-note: Brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges (sons of actor Lloyd Bridges, who appeared in a noir-ish B-movie or two himself) appear in the film as an infant and toddler.
Born Bettejane Greer in 1924, Jane Greer legally changed her name in 1945, deciding that Bettejane was “a sissy name. It’s too Bo-Peepish for the type of role I’ve been playing”. RKO promoted her as “the woman with the Mona Lisa smile”, but in fact, teenage Greer suffered from a condition that paralyzed the left side of her face. Even after recovering, she relied on facial exercises to overcome the paralysis, which contributed to her enigmatic expression.
Teen beauty pageants led to modeling jobs and a big band singing gig in the Washington D.C. area till Hollywood discovered her from a Life magazine modeling spread. Greer appeared in a long list of MGM and RKO films playing everything from crooks to cowgirls and continuing to work in both movies and television into her seventies. This even included a parody of her iconic role as Kathie Moffat, one of film noir’s most iconic femmes fatales, in a 1987 Saturday Night Live skit alongside her Out Of The Past costar Robert Mitchum. Now that I’d like to see!
It was a dreary weekend, saddled with a long list of chores and plagued by cold, drizzly weather. By the time the Sunday evening dinner plates were tucked in the dishwasher, and with few prospects ahead except prime-time cable news shows desperately trying to digest the ongoing national nightmare, I was ready for a double dose of ZzzQuil, Monday’s 5:15 AM alarm the next stop.
That is, till I noticed that Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 RKO noir masterpiece Out Of The Past was on the Movies! network “Sunday Night Noir” feature at 7:00 PM CST. Sure, commercial interruptions and all that. But it’s Robert Mitchum. It’s Jane Greer. It’s Out Of The F—ing Past.
I love Robert Mitchum. I’ll happily watch Hollywood’s 1940’s-50’s bad boy as a cop, a killer, a sheriff, a soldier or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Mitchum’s deep, resonant voice laced with a knowing cynicism, the hulking build buried inside voluminous postwar era suits and impossibly huge topcoats, those sleepy bedroom eyes barely peeking out from beneath a wide-brimmed fedora…it’s just pure dark magic come to life on screen. Newcomer Kirk Douglas? Oh, he’s suitably slimy throughout, even if his offscreen demise is a little frustrating. And Jane Greer? Well, what can anyone say about Greer’s iconic Kathie Moffat, surely one of the classic film noir era’s preeminent femmes fatales? Here she’s a vision in white, then later, the most dangerous of dames, mysterious throughout, her grim backstory always implied but never revealed. Within the postwar era’s limitations, Greer’s violent end is as riveting as the bloody slo-mo shootout capping Arthur Penn’s 1968 Bonnie And Clyde.
But her memorable femme fatale is no mere schemer. Like many great protagonists, antagonists and antiheroes from the classic film noir era, this villainess has some baggage we never get to hear about. But we know there’s much more to Greer’s Kathie Moffat than just greed or lust. Near the film’s end, when Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey/Markham realizes that any chance at redemption and a new life is irrevocably gone, Kathie Moffat tells him:
“We’re starting all over. I wanna walk out of the sun again and find you waiting. I wanna sit in the same moonlight and tell you all the things I never told you…until you don’t hate me. Until sometime you love me again. “
“They’ll always be looking for us,” Mitchum replies. “They won’t stop till we die.”
“I don’t care. Just so they find us together.”
“All the things I never told you…” That’s the key, isn’t it? We fill in the blanks throughout the film, certain that in addition to being a crook, Kirk Douglas’ gambling kingpin was a sexual sadist and abuser, but unsure if his mistress, Greer’s Kathie Moffat, endured the pain and humiliation out of fear, avarice or…what? The great film noir femmes fatales are much more than succubi with a snubnose. Scriptwriters and directors left details, backstories and motivations murky, times being what they were. But the viewer knows. We all know. They were who they were because of what they’ve seen, done and endured.
Out Of The Past was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel Build My Gallows High…his last novel (writing as Geofffrey Homes), in fact, Mainwaring switching to scriptwriting full-time thereafter. In fact, the film went by the novel’s title in the UK, so you’ll see some posters and lobby cards online with that name. (The gorgeous illustration at the top of this post is from an Italian poster by Marino.) I’m embarrassed to admit that Mainwaring/Homes’ novel is one classic that’s still on my to-be-read list, a mistake I’ll remedy soon. It’s my understanding, though, that it’s a real textbook example of colorful hard-boiled banter. As is the film’s screenplay. Yet I’ve read that Mainwaring shared little of the dialog from his own source novel.
The film has too many accolades to list, but famed film critic Roger Ebert called Out Of The Past “the greatest cigarette smoking movie of all time”. See for yourself if that isn’t true during your next (or first) viewing. Vintage Hollywood films are often a smoking orgy, but you’ll never see characters smoke so much and so purposefully as you will here. Ebert explained, “the trick, as demonstrated by Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman Nicholas Musuraca (the talented team on 1942’s Cat People) is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke that express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There are guns in Out Of The Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other”.
And Jane Greer, I might add.
Confession: I still downed a shot of the ZzzQuill Sunday night. But by the time I started snoring, I was already deep in dark dreams about “all the things she never told us“.