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Contemporary news items relate the following information about the production: In October 1944, Columbia purchased Richard Wormser's short story as a vehicle for Chester Morris. RKO bought the story in February 1947 and assigned J. Robert Bren to produce it in both English and Spanish at the studio's Churubusco Studios, Mexico City. Bren was eventually replaced by Jack Gross, and no evidence that a Spanish language version was ever produced has been found. RKO originally assigned George Raft to star in the film, but he was replaced by Robert Mitchum in early December 1948 because of scheduling conflicts. Director Don Siegel and producer Gross began filming background shots in Mexico in late December 1948. Principal photography was to have started in mid-January 1949, but was delayed because Mitchum was on trial, following a September 1948 indictment for narcotics possession. Mitchum was arrested with Lila Leeds, Vicki Evans and Robin Ford for possessing marijuana and conspiracy to possess the drug, and on January 10, 1949, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. (Modern sources note that because Mitchum, who at the time of his indictment pleaded not guilty on all the charges, was finally willing to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge, the district attorney's office dropped the possession count.) On February 9, 1949, Judge Clement Nye sentenced Mitchum to a sixty-day jail term. Although RKO asked Nye for a postponement in Mitchum's incarceration, pending the completion of The Big Steal, the actor was forced to serve out his sentence, and production on the picture shut down completely in March 1949. Nye did reduce Mitchum's sentence by ten days for "good behavior," however, and the actor was released on 30 March 1949.
RKO negotiated with Hal Wallis' company to borrow Lizbeth Scott for the production, but in late January 1949, the studio replaced her with Jane Greer. (News items claim that Scott was replaced due to illness, but modern sources contend that both Wallis and Scott backed out of the deal because they did not want to be associated with Mitchum.) RKO head Howard Hughes ordered a delay in the start of The Woman on Pier 13 so that Greer, who was to star in that film, could appear in The Big Steal. Greer was in the early stages of pregnancy at the start of production. Modern sources add that Joan Bennett was also considered for the feminine lead. Julio Villarreal was announced in mid-March 1949 as a cast member, but his participation in the final film is doubtful. The CBCS lists both Alfredo Soto and Juan Varro in the role of "Gonzales." It is not known which actor played the role.
Most of the picture was shot in Mexico, including Veracruz, Tehuacn and Mexico City. While Mitchum was incarerated, Siegel shot around his scenes in Mexico, using a double whenever possible. Because co-star William Bendix, whom RKO had borrowed from the Hal Roach Studios, was obligated to finish his part in Mexico before Mitchum's scheduled release, some of his scenes were rewritten to eliminate Mitchum. To save money following Mitchum's return, no new sets were built, and only "actual interiors of Mexican hotels and homes" were used. In a modern interview, Siegel recalled that because of the stop-and-go production schedule, foliage that was visible in one shot is missing from the next. Modern sources also note that Greer's pregnancy became much more noticeable by the end of filming, and upon his release from prison, Mitchum appeared tanner and thinner than he did at the start of production. Just before the cast and crew returned to Mexico with Mitchum in mid-April 1949, some scenes were shot at the Ray Corrigan Ranch in Simi Valley, CA. The film cost approximately $780,000 to produce. In June 1949, Hollywood Reporter announced that RKO was "ignoring the general major studio ban on stars and contract talent appearing on television with a special TV one-minute clip to promote" The Big Steal. For the television ad, RKO shot special footage with Mitchum and also presented two short clips from the picture.