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Forgotten Film Noir? The Big Operator (1959)

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

The Big Operator (1959) Charles F. Haas

If you'd rather watch this review, here you go:

Recycling? Not a new thing, not at all. Movie studios were recycling long before those yellow (or blue) containers started appearing in our communities years ago. In 1959 MGM decided to do a little recycling of its own, revisiting a story by Paul Gallico (who wrote the source novel for The Poseidon Adventure), one that had been filmed in 1942 as Joe Smith, American, starring Robert Young.

Young plays Joe Smith, the crew chief on a Lockheed assembly line in a defense plant during wartime. Joe’s boss and two men from Washington ask Joe to work on a top secret project. Later another group of men try to strong-arm Joe into coughing up the plans, otherwise his wife (Marsha Hunt) and son (Darryl Hickman) will disappear.

Joe Smith, American made a modest profit, which is all the inspiration producer Albert Zugsmith needed to cook up a remake. Zugsmith was not exactly the King of Great Ideas, but this one wasn’t bad: Instead of focusing on wartime patriotism at a defense plant, set the story around a labor union dispute at a factory, and hire Mickey Rooney as Little Joe Braun, a racketeering, off-the-rails union leader.


The film opens with Braun having a man murdered (I will not disclose how) by a hitman, Oscar “The Executioner” Wetzel (Ray Danton). When Braun and Wetzel meet to discuss the aftermath of the hit, factory coworkers and buddies Bill Gibson (Steve Cochran) and Fred McAfee (Mel Tormé) witness the meeting, and Braun witnesses them.

Braun attempts to entice both Bill and Fred to come work for him where he can keep an eye on them (i.e., make sure they don’t get any ideas about talking to the cops). When Braun pays a visit to Bill’s modest house, the contrast between Cochran (6’ 0”) and Rooney (5’ 2”) is laughable until Bill sits down and Braun remains standing, towering over Bill. It’s no longer funny, but frightening. Here’s Braun, a small-fry, not only intimidating Bill in his own home, but also spouting innuendoes about what he’d like to do with Bill’s wife Mary (Mamie Van Doren, in what has to be the most modest role she ever played).

Rooney chews the scenery with the best of them, but he’s also very believable as a blistering Jimmy Hoffa-type labor boss. Rooney had been dipping his toe into the darker stuff for quite some time with films like Quicksand (1950), Drive a Crooked Road (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957), and The Last Mile (1959), but if you weren’t paying attention to those films, his portrayal of Braun was likely a big surprise.

Steve Cochran is another matter. He didn’t get the chance to play too many good guys, so it’s a bit strange seeing him as an honorable character. Cochran’s no wimp here, but we’re used to seeing him slug somebody at least once a reel. It takes some getting used to, but it’s refreshing to see Cochran as a regular joe who enjoys his work and wants only to protect his family. It’s also nice to see Mamie Van Doren playing a character who’s not a sexpot. She really isn’t given much to do here, but she does okay. The film also features Jim Backus, Jackie Coogan, Vampira, and a pre-Dennis the Menace Jay North.

Although it’s a mixed bag, and believability is stretched to the absolute limit during the last act, The Big Operator is a solid crime picture you just can’t stop watching. I’m not convinced it can truly be called a film noir, but I wouldn’t argue the point, either. The amount of violence, at least for 1959, is a bit shocking. (I still can’t get over the fact that a man is set on fire in an MGM production, and a later torture session is particularly intense.) The movie includes most of the cast and crew of another picture released by MGM one month earlier, The Beat Generation, a title often lambasted, and probably for good reason.

The Big Operator is on Blu-ray from Olive Films (released in 2014) and looks pretty good in CinemaScope. The Van Alexander score is a bit overblown, but that’s not uncommon for the era. The release contains no extras, but is currently on sale at Hamilton Book for six bucks. I think it’s worth a look.

If you’ve seen the film let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.

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