—A Hidden Noir Gem—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Lewis Seiler
A recently paroled convict (Bogart) tries to go straight but ends up in trouble again after agreeing to lead a group of thieves in an armored car heist.
What I Thought
This film caught me off guard in the best possible ways. The fifth film from Director Lewis Seiler that I’ve done for this blog (following Crime School, King of the Underworld, You Can’t Get Away with Murder, and It all Came True), this one showed such a devotion to detail for the Noir genre (in most parts) that it’s hard to imagine this is the same director who helmed the four previous Bogart collaborations.
Other than a brief chair tipping scene, gone is almost any element of silly gangster antics à la King of the Underworld and It All Came True. And other than a few minutes in a cabin hideaway between Bogart and Irene Manning, gone are any of the melodramatic trappings of teenage rebellion or love-angst as we saw in Crime School and You Can’t Get Away with Murder.
With its dark atmosphere, low camera angles, nightmarish voice montages, anti-hero protagonists, and ultra-violent shootouts and car chases, this film is almost a straight-up Film Noir thriller. The only time Seiler seemingly errs away from Noir is the aforementioned scene where Bogart goes on the lam to a mountain hideout with his dame. Then, for a few minutes, we get some lighthearted romantic comedy, but only just the smallest of doses. Does it detract from the overall film? Maybe a bit, but I could also see someone arguing that the moment of levity helps round out Bogart and Manning’s characters while giving us a chance to catch our breath before the big finale.
So why is The Big Shot not more widely known? I’m not sure. It’s not a perfect picture by any means, but it certainly seems like a more important film for Bogart’s Noir filmography than it’s given credit for. There is a character that appears in blackface for a short section of the second act, but he’s already been established as a not-so-nice guy, and Classic Film fans can be pretty forgiving when it comes to racial tension from a different era, so I would imagine that’s not the reason – although it probably doesn’t help.
Regardless, if you get a chance to catch this one on TCM, take it. Guaranteed to stir up some good conversation on what it means to be an “innocent” criminal, Seiler is able to explore some deeper territory here than what I’m used to seeing in his previous films. While it might have a few stumbling blocks that keep it from being a true classic, it’s more than watchable, and it’s a fun Noir film that’s not afraid to get its hands a little bloody.
The Bogart Factor
Playing the recently released convict Joseph ‘Duke ’Berne, Bogart is presented as a man who’s trying to reform but just can’t keep himself out of trouble. Director Seiler doesn’t hesitate to show us how truly dark and vicious Bogart can be as the film plays out, yet at the same time, he’s also not afraid to ask us for our sympathy towards Bogart’s plight for a new life. Case in point – late in the film, Bogart laments that another character is taking a rap for him in regards to a jail break. At no point however, does Bogart lament the prison guard that died as a result of the break. Shouldn’t we feel a little more disgust for Bogart’s callous display of priorities? We should, but we don’t. Director Seiler, the script, and Bogart do a great job of painting a likable criminal who spends so much time in the “gray” area of life that he’s essentially made up his own rules about right and wrong.
It’s a fun role for Bogart, and I’d say it’s a must see for anyone who’s a fan of the actor or the Noir genre. Considering it was released while he was filming Casablanca, it would be fun to do this one as a double feature with that great classic for an interesting taste of how diverse one year in the life of Bogart’s film career could be.
Irene Manning plays Lorna Fleming, the former flame to Bogart’s ex-convict who leaves her husband to aid Bogart after his release from prison. A professional singer who got to dabble a bit in acting, Manning is cast well as the femme fatale that seems anxious to dump her attorney husband to run off with the bad boy. She has a look and an attitude that suits the character.
Richard Travis plays the car salesman, George Anderson, who attempts to give Bogart an alibi for a robbery and fails – only to go on to take the rap for a later prison escape by Bogart and another inmate. It’s not a particularly well developed role as he’s seemingly only needed to arouse pathos for Bogart. That being said, I think a lot of Noir films from the era would have used Travis’ character as the main protagonist, so I’ll give the writers some credit for not giving in too easily to expectations. (Does anyone else wonder though, about why Travis’ future parents-in-law, who initially hated him, would become so supportive after he takes part in a crime for money?!?)
Stanley Ridges plays Attorney Martin T. Fleming, the man who pulls Bogart back in for one more caper, tries to defend him in court, and then sabotages any chance he has to avoid life in prison. Ridges is fun in the role and has some good scenes with Manning that lead us to believe it might not be your conventional marriage.
Chick Chandler plays convict Frank ‘Dancer’ Smith, the man who co-escapes with Bogart. Chandler is pretty entertaining as the wannabe dancer (despite the blackface), and shows up again in an uncredited role in Action in the North Atlantic.
Susan Peters plays Travis’ girlfriend, Ruth. Other than a wonderfully shaken performance in the big trial scene, Peters isn’t given a lot to work with here.
John Ridgely has a small role as Tim, a wisecracking cop. What’s interesting to note here is that Ridgely appeared in FIFTEEN different films with Bogart – all of which were small parts and cameos like this one until his big part as Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep!
Classic Bogie Moment
Our classic moment comes from Bogart’s ability to create a laugh in what should be a tense scene. Appearing briefly alongside of fifteen-time costar John Ridgely, Bogart goes to turn himself in to the police and we get this exchange:
Ridgely: (TO ANOTHER POLICE OFFICER WHILE PLAYING CARDS) Only the other day Irene says to me, “Tim!” she says, “How soon do you ‘spose we can afford to have a baby?” How do you like that? Afford to have a baby! Like it was a battleship or somethin’. “Hold on,” I says to her, “Take it easy!” I says. “Not till we can afford to buy a teethin’ ring,” I says to her. I’d hate to tell ya the chances I’d take to get my hands on Duke Berne and get some of that reward money!
Bogart: (COOLLY WATCHING AS HE LEANS AGAINST THE FRONT DESK) Ya got it now, Tim. Tell your wife to go right ahead and have that baby, with my compliments.
Officer 2: Duke Berne!
Ridgely: (LEAPING UP AND GRABBING BOGART BY THE SHOULDERS) Lieutenant! Lieutenant! Come on out here and see what I got!
Bogart: (AS THE LIEUTENANT APPROACHES) Tim’s havin’ a baby.
The Bottom Line
Keep your eyes on TCM’s guide and wait for this one to pop up! (Unless they finally get wise and put it out on DVD first!)