CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
I’ve always wondered about the lack of respect shown to Lewis Seiler’s 1942 film “The Big Shot.” Seiler was a dependable director of action-driven films, and he was working with a script co-authored by three specialists in the crime genre: Bertram Millhauser (whose credits stretched back to the early days of silent film), Abem Finkel and Daniel Fuchs (a fine novelist as well). Plus he had Bogart, straight from two films that would become hallmarks of his career: “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon.” What interests me about Bogart’s portrayal of Duke Berne is that it catches him finally shedding his persona as a cynical, unsympathetic thug and moving into his newly-emerging persona as the existential man trapped in a world in which there are few options, and none very good.
In a sense the title is a bit of a come-on. Duke Berne is no Johnny Rocco seeking to regain his throne as an underworld czar. Rather, like James Caan’s Frank in Michael Mann’s “Thief,” Duke is a respected technician, skilled labor–an essential man to have on a heist. But he is also a two-time loser and his next conviction, even if it’s for spitting on the sidewalk, means life without parole. So Duke is a man who must tread very softly, and spend a lot of time looking behind him. In this regard his situation in similar to that George Raft’s Cliff Taylor in an earlier Warner Brothers drama from 1939, “Invisible Stripes.” Like Cliff in the earlier film, Duke finally realizes that there is nowhere else for him to go except back to the mob, especially since they have a lead-pipe cinch of a job on the docket, all planned out by powerful underworld mouthpiece Martin T. Fleming.
Of course a lead-pipe cinch in a crime film always turns out to be anything but. This time most of the gang ends up dead. But not Duke. Duke wasn’t there. Fleming’s wife Lorna, Duke’s former girl, kept him away at gunpoint. Again there are some echoes of “Invisible Stripes.” In that film, Raft must also re-team with his former prison buddy (Chuck Martin, ironically played by Bogart and for once, not as a complete bastard) to pull off a series of bank-robberies, but Raft has quit the gang before a final heist-gone-wrong. “The Big Shot” adds a romantic factor absent from the earlier film. Once Fleming learns that his ex-wife still carries a torch for Berne, he carefully sabotages his “defense” to send his rival away for life. (If I recall, a similar tactic was used by Lloyd Nolan against George Raft in the 1940 film “The House Across the Bay.”)
Fleming’s betrayal of Berne also involved the betrayal of a stooge in the plot, car salesman George Anderson, played by up-and-coming B-movie leading man Richard Travis. When Berne and another con break prison, leaving a guard dead in their wake, Anderson is implicated and now faces a murder charge. At this point the film begins to enter “High Sierra” territory. Berne is out, and is re-united with Lorna, who walked out on Fleming and aided in Berne’s escape. They are holed up in a cabin in the snowy countryside, and are dreaming of a happy life together–but can Berne buy his happiness at another man’s expense? The 1930s-model Bogart would cracked wise at his good luck and Anderson’s bad, but this is a new Bogart, a Bogart with conscience and heart–an aspect he was rarely allowed to display in his earlier gangster films. He knows what he should do, but before he can decide to do it, his hand is forced by Fleming who has located their hide-out and alerted the police. A breakneck chase down icy mountain roads–Seiler was ever the action director–ends tragically with Lorna dead and Duke wounded. But he has enough juice left in him to make it back to the city to repay Fleming for his treachery. Recaptured with the dead attorney a his feet, Berne is returned to the prison infirmary where he vouches for Anderson’s innocence before dying of his wounds.
Bogart wouldn’t play a gangster again until 1955 when he appeared in William Wyler’s “The Desperate Hours,” and as prison escapee Glenn Griffith he was back to playing a totally cynical and unsympathetic bastard. So I like to see “The Big Shot” as being an end-point in the evolution of Bogart’s gangster persona. Hints of what this persona might become were fleetingly glimpsed in his performances in “Invisible Stripes” and as Baby Face Martin in Wyler’s 1937 social drama “Dead End,” but this turn as Duke Berne solidified it for us.