—Deserves a Better Reputation—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Stuart Heisler
Veteran war pilot Matt Brennan (Humphrey Bogart) returns home to take a job as a test pilot and ends up working with/for an old war acquaintance (Richard Whorf) who happens to be dating Brennan’s wartime ex-girlfriend (Eleanor Parker).
What I Thought
A lot of the things that I didn’t like about China Clipper are fixed up in Chain Lightning. While both movies deal with pushing the boundaries of aviation, China Clipper peters out about halfway through when all character development seems to stall, while Chain Lightning is able to keep the stakes high right up to the very end.
Watching on TCM, I was a little puzzled as to why Robert Osborne lent so much credibility to the notion that this film is one of many attempts to recapture Casablanca’s magic. Yes, Bogart once again crosses paths with an old flame who’s now with a new man . . . but for me, that’s where the similarities stop.
Lt. Col. Matt Brennan is not Rick Blaine. Not by a long shot. Whereas Blaine lives by his own code of loyalty, Brennan is a bit more of a maverick, willing to double cross the man who gave him a job in order to gain a little fame, money, and possibly the heart of his wartime gal. Brennan’s not a bad guy, he’s just in a darker place than Blaine is when their respective films start. Add to the fact that there’s no looming Nazi threat – no real antagonist at all, other than Bogart’s own flawed personality – and I was left with a much different feeling watching this film than Casablanca.
Chain Lightning is by no means a classic, but it’s a solid drama that does an adequate job of building tension all the way to the end. It’s entirely watchable, and the cast hits all the right notes throughout. The high-tech jet plane technology gimmick feels dated, and Director Heisler gets a little heavy handed with the “Judas” reference towards Bogart when he undercut’s Whorf’s agenda, but it doesn’t ever ring false. Bogart’s betrayal of Whorf leads us to the very believable ending where Brennan makes a risky choice in order to make amends for his earlier shortcomings.
In the end, it’s probably not a must see for most fans, but Chain Lightning is made well enough for most Bogart and Classic Hollywood fans to enjoy. I would probably compare it to a film like Dead Reckoning in the fact that it’s a flawed picture with a lot of really good performances.
The Bogart Factor
Matthew Brennan is a slightly different spin on Bogart’s catalog of “expatriate loners” that pop up from time to time. When he’s back in the states, Brennan is left a bitter and lost after the war is over. His motives are superficial and it’s not until the end that he’s willing to risk himself for more than a payoff or a woman.
If anyone is good at being bitter – it’s Bogart. He plays the role with ease and believability, and getting to see him use the song Bless’em All to torture Eleanor Parker once they’re reunited is an especially fun bit of needling to watch.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, as Bogart doesn’t have to stretch too far to play a character that’s a composite of a lot of his previous roles, but he’s good at what he does, and he’s a big part of why the dramatic tension works in the film.
Eleanor Parker plays Joan “Jo” Holloway, Brennan’s ex-girlfriend that comes between the veteran pilot and his friend/coworker. While the part was underwritten, what I did enjoy was the fact that Parker didn’t spend a lot of time pining over which man to pick. It was pretty clear that she was ready to go back to Bogart, despite his arrogance and flaws.
Richard Whorf plays Carl Troxell, the aviation designer, old war acquaintance, and third corner to the love triangle between Parker and Bogart. I thought Whorf made a strong showing here and did an especially fine job at the end when he puts his life on the line in a race against Bogart to prove which plane is better fit for the military.
Raymond Massey is Leland Willis, the man in charge of the aviation company that’s building the planes that Whorf designs and Bogart flies. He’s about as close to a bad guy as we get in the film, and even then his choices are motivated enough in reality to be believable. It’s always fun to see Massey turn up in a film.
Classic Bogie Moment
This was an easy one the moment I saw the scene. Bogart was always great at playing the charming cad. While quite a few of the characters in his filmography were “bad” guys, it’s hard to blame the women who end up with him because he was always able to play off his ugly side with an easy going humor. In my “classic” moment for this post, I give you the scene where Bogart’s Brennan and Parker’s Jo are getting reacquainted on a car ride as they carefully broach the topic of why they lost touch after the war:
Bogart: I wrote you a couple of times . . .
Parker: I never got them . . .
Bogart: (PLAYFULLY) I never sent them . . .
Did he really write? I don’t know. I’m guessing he didn’t, but he was so sincere when they almost got married earlier in the film, so maybe there’s a chance that he did. It’s the thought that counts, right? It’s the first moment that I think he’s really planting a seed in Parker that he might not be a lost cause.
The Bottom Line
It’s a decent drama, and definitely not as bad as a lot of the user and critic reviews would lead you to believe.