“He was a big shot once.”
The 1930s saw Humphrey Bogart in countless crime dramas playing every different variation on the gangster character. It wasn’t until the early 1940s, thanks to some poor decisions made by fellow actor George Raft, that Bogart’s career would do an about face. Raft turned down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (1941) and these two films launched Bogart into mega stardom. George Raft also bailed out on another film, the lesser known Warner Bros. movie The Big Shot (1942) which would serve as Bogie’s goodbye to the gangster film genre. It would the last vestige of that former career.
“You can’t be a crook anymore because you used up your chances. And you can’t be honest because nobody’ll let you.” – Bogie as Duke Berne
Bogart stars as Duke Berne, a career criminal who just got out of prison for the third time. One more strike and he’ll be in the hoosegow for life. He’s determined to make an honest go at things but the police have a close eye on him and his old cronies are back to rope him into another heist. This time it’s an armored car they’re after and District Attorney Fleming (Stanley Ridges) is the brains behind the operation. Turns out Fleming is married to Duke’s old flame Lorna, played the dazzling singer turned actress Irene Manning. Lorna convinces Duke to bail on the heist and spend the night with her instead.
“This armored car is no can of corn.” – Bogie as Duke Berne
The heist goes terribly wrong and Duke is misidentified by a witness, thanks to police coercion, and sent to prison for life. Lorna is his only alibi but neither can reveal that they were together that night. Salesman George Anderson (Richard Travis), desperate for money so he can marry his girlfriend Ruth Carter (Susan Peters), is hired as a fake alibi but things go terribly wrong for everyone involved. We know from the onset that things won’t turn out well for Duke. The first scene of the film shows Duke in the hospital ward of a prison dying with George and Ruth by his side. The majority of film is a flashback revealing Duke’s tragic story.
Directed by Lewis Seiler, The Big Shot (1942) is part film noir, part gangster flick, part courtroom drama and part prison film. This is a rare Bogart film which is an odd thing to say considering how easy it is to access the majority of Bogart’s film work. It was unavailable for a long time, I always missed it when it was on TCM and I was very happy to see Warner Archive made it available on DVD. I was particularly interested in this film because of Susan Peters, a favorite actress of mine who was at the height of her career in 1942. That same year she would land a plum role in Random Harvest and she would be nominated for an Oscar for that performance. 1942 also saw Bogart in the mega classic Casablanca so needless to say it was a really good year for him too.
This film is very flawed but still enjoyable to watch. There is a lot of fantastic dialogue delivered expertly by Bogart and even though Bogart and Manning didn’t get along on set they do make an electric pair on screen. Some of the cinematography in the film is delightful. There is one scene in which Bogart reveals himself from behind a curtain and he is lit to perfection. Some of the editing is not that great and while I don’t have a fine tuned eye for this sort of thing it was quite noticeable in this film which is a bad sign. There are several plot lines which makes this film more a series of vignettes than one continuous story.
The biggest problem with the film is the black face. Isn’t that always a problem when it appears in old movies? Not to reveal too much about the plot but one of the pivotal scenes towards the end of the film involves a fellow prisoner of Duke’s donning black face for a prison talent show. The black face itself is not really a plot element, just something this character did, but it does date the movie for contemporary audiences. It may also be one of the many reasons this film remains relatively unknown.
Bogart completists need to watch The Big Shot (1942). And who isn’t a Bogart completist? I know I am! The Big Shot is an oddity and an entertaining one at that.
The Big Shot (1942) on DVD is available from Warner Archive.
Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received The Big Shot (1942) from Warner Archive for review.