In the preface to her red-ripe tomato of an autobiography ‘Has Corrine Been a Good Girl?’ French actress Corrine Calvert writes of meeting Rory Calhoun:
“I felt a towering shadow blocking the sun’s rays. I looked up as Rory Calhoun introduced himself. I tumbled into the dazzling whirlpool of his eyes. There was a fire in the depth of his glance that consumed all my resistance. It was too strong, too intoxicating. His hand was on my elbow. His touch had ignited me. Desire flowed through my body”.
Things move fast from there. However, Calhoun soon decides he’s had enough of Calvert.
“Move your car”, Rory ordered.
“I’ll go. Just kiss me, goodnight. Please Rory, just one kiss”.
Rory went back into the house. I went to my car and sat behind the wheel waiting. Rory reappeared and his hand grasped a small automatic pistol. He pointed at me directly.
“Move or I’ll shoot…You don’t believe me?" Rory challenged in a white rage. He shot a bullet across the hood of my car.
I was paralyzed with terror. Rory was at the door of the car, the gun at my temple.
“You’ll never get away with it, Rory”, I said. “Just kiss me and I’ll leave”.
I decided to go back to France.
That Rory Calhoun was born-to-wild there is no doubt. He’d spent most of his youth until age 21 in reformatories and prisons serving time for everything from car theft to armed robbery.
Following release from San Quentin, Calhoun decided to go straight. After a series of laboring jobs, he got himself to Hollywood. He was noticed by actor Alan Ladd whose wife, agent Sue Carol got Calhoun a contract with Fox (under his real name Francis McCown). Fox later dropped Calhoun but Henry Willson, David O. Selznick’s chief talent scout persuaded the producer to add him to his contract list and renamed him 'Rory Calhoun' (Willson also famously coined the noms d’ecran Rock Hudson, Guy Madison, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Ty Hardin, Dack Rambo and Mike Connors and others).
Calhoun’s first break came when cast as boxer Jim Corbett in ‘The Great John L’ (1945). Here he got to display the physique and athleticism that would win him parts in the countless (some would say endless) adventure movies and westerns with which he would become identified.
In 1947 Calhoun was featured in Delmer Daves’ moody, rustic noir ‘The Red House’ sharing some torrid love scenes with Julie London. However, it would be ten years before the good-looking Calhoun appeared in another noir crime drama, ‘The Big Caper’, based on a book of the same title by Lionel White (also author of 'Clean Break’ filmed in 1955 as 'The Killing').
Calhoun stars as Frank Harper a small-time hood who’s buried under gambling debts. To get out from under he persuades his boss, Flood (James Gregory) to bankroll a big caper – knocking off a bank that handles the monthly payroll for a nearby army base. Harper buys a gas station across the street from the bank as a stakeout locale. He settles into the community (San Felipe, California) with Flood’s girlfriend, Kay (Mary Costa). They pretend to be man-and-wife and wait for the arrival of the other members of the crew. These include an alcoholic firebug (Robert H. Harris), a sinister sex-addled hipster (Corey Allen), and Flood’s loyal protector (Paul Picerni), any one of whom looks capable of screwing things up.
Meanwhile, Harper and Kay, thrown together as they are, begin to enjoy each other’s company a little too much, as well as the square, small-town pleasures of card games with new friends and backyard barbeques. Flood begins to suspect and wonder what’s wrong with this picture. As it turns out he’s wise to do so and Flood is as dangerous as he is smart.
‘The Big Caper’ is another of those more obscure late-period film noirs that either haven’t been seen or given enough credit by some who have seen them. The movies are stripped of much of the visual poetry and romantic narrative that qualified earlier noirs of the classic period. The lesser ones suffer for it but the better of them like 'The Big Caper' emerge as something else – more close-to-the-bone, more real, more modern. More Mickey Spillane than Raymond Chandler.
Much of the credit goes to Robert Stevens’ very pacey, taut, hard-edged direction. Stevens had a long career in television prior to and after ‘The Big Caper’, notably as head director on both Alfred Hitchcock series for which he received an Emmy. Stevens also directed a quartet of provocative noir-stained psychological dramas: ‘Never Love a Stranger’ (1958) w/John Drew Barrymore; ‘I Thank a Fool’ (1962) w/Susan Hayward; ‘In the Cool of the Day’ (1963) w/ Jane Fonda; ‘Change of Mind’ (1969) w/ Raymond St. Jacques. Stevens clearly was secure with darker material and ‘The Big Caper’ is as one of his better films.
‘The Big Caper’ also would offer Rory Calhoun one his better roles. Though right enough for westerns, Calhoun by looks and temperament was born for film noir and was most interesting when playing roguishly handsome bad guys. And Calhoun was nothing if not cool. He was a natural actor - which set him apart from other Hollywood hunks like Ray Danton, Brad Dexter, Richard Egan, William Campbell, Jeffrey Hunter, Vince Edwards, John Russell, John Bromfield (to whom Corrine Calvert was married for as long as it lasted) and many others.
Not enough has been made of Calhoun’s native talent and versatility on screen. While at Fox he’d been a reliable leading man to the studio’s female stars such as Betty Grable in a succession of musicals. Over a career that included eighty-plus films and a thousand television episodes Calhoun hit mostly high notes with the part of Frank Harper among the highest.
Harper starts out as a hoodlum blind in his loyalty to Flood but then begins to consider (as Calhoun himself once had) that maybe a thug’s life wasn’t going to get him anywhere. But the decision to look differently at the world doesn’t come easily to the embittered Harper. He has his back to the wall and has to work through where he is with Kay and Flood both. The change-of-pace for Calhoun and his convincing performance in ‘The Big Caper’ shows how interesting a downbeat lead he could be.
But everyone in the film steps up, especially James Gregory (‘The Scarlet Hour’ 1956, ‘Nightfall’ 1957) as the frightening and murderous gang boss, Flood. ‘The Big Caper’ is really about its characters and the workings of the gang as much as it is the plot - which admittedly is shaky in some elements, especially its abrupt and suspect 'studio' ending (suspect but not unexpected). However, it’s a small price to pay when the payoff is as substantial as it is with ‘The Big Caper’.
Meantime, Rory Calhoun would carry on. In one of Hollywood most infamous divorce trials, actress Lita Baron, Calhoun’s wife of twenty-one years sued him for adultery naming seventy-nine women with whom the actor had had affairs while married, including Betty Grable. Calhoun’s response? “Heck, she didn’t even include half of ‘em”. Grable denied involvement.