One of the more curious career trajectories in classic movie history was enjoyed, if that’s the term, by Jane Greer. A looker from childhood, she was a decent singer turned actress who just happened to light up the screen in perhaps the best film noir ever made, 1947′s Out of the Past.
Following her transcendent performance opposite Robert Mitchum in that outing, her career took an oddly downward slide until it concluded with multiple tv appearances in strictly supporting parts the early Fifties. In all, she racked up 49 credits over an eight- year span about evenly split between movies and tv.
Pretty anemic for a big name Forties femme fatale.
But what film noir fan can forget her performance in Out of the Past. Film noir-author/critic Eddie Muller calls this movie spellbinding. It reconfigured genre cliches by investing them with depth and style. Beautifully directed by Jacques Tourneur with a huge assist from cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, the picture boasts of a first-rate cast including Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Steve Brodie, a young Dickie Moore and, most especially, Greer.
Her physical beauty is cannily showcased against her atrocious behavior. As the protypical femme fatale on steriods, Jane Greer’s flashing, cunning eyes betray a depthless venality not apparent in her slightly plump, puckish face. She vamps her way into the ranks of cinematic Circes, second to none, wrote Muller. (Greer was tight with a pair of (film noir’s) favorite daughters, Gloria Graham and Audrey Totter — imagine the slumber parties!)
Greer’s performance seemingly assured stellar status. But it didn’t happen. The reason is two words — Howard Hughes. He had brought her to RKO, and (as was his custom) took a romantic fancy to her offscreen before her second marriage to Edward Lasker (her first for one year had been to Rudy Vallee). She was not thrilled.
A followup to Out of the Past was planned in 1949 titled The Big Steal. According to Univ. of Southern California’s Richard Jewell, George Raft and Lizabeth Scott were envisioned for the leads. When Raft dropped out, Scott followed suit. Hughes decided to cast Mitchum for the lead despite the actor’s incipient problems with the law over a marijuana bust.
But Hughes was adamantly opposed to the casting of Greer opposite Mitchum. The problem was personal, said Jewell.
Hughes even threatened not to cast Greer in any more RKO titles. But after he became enmeshed in salvaging Mitchum’s valuable (to RKO) career, his pique at Greer lessened. She finally was cast in The Big Steal (only after other actresses turned it down).
The resulting picture, a crime-adventure set in Mexico, was directed by the efficient Don Siegel and costarred William Bendix refreshingly cast as a nasty thug. The Big Steal is a pleasant, workmanlike picture with a happy ending, yet.
Outside of a 50-day interruption in shooting due to Mitchum’s time served in the Los Angeles county jail on that marijuana bust, the picture was completed without major disruption. In any event, it is not an authentic film noir, nowhere near in the same league as Out of the Past.
Greer discovered that she was pregnant during the filming of The Big Steal, with one of her three children with Lasker. By the end of the shooting she was beginning to show. She was in a family way both physically and in spirit.
The Big Steal made money at the box office, and reinforced RKO’s faith in Mitchum’s career despite his messy legal problems.
For Greer, it was another story. Her career went into a slump, but she didn’t appear to be particularly bothered by it, said Jewell. Her career never took off as a lot of people thought it would after ‘Out of the Past.’