Review: Lewis Seiler’s “The Big Shot,” Starring Humphrey Bogart

Irene Manning and Humphrey Bogart in
Irene Manning and Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Shot"

Still riding high off his 1941 star-making, one-two punch of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart spent the first half of 1942 in less successful vehicles. The somewhat funny thriller All Through the Night came first, quickly followed by half–gangster movie half–prison drama The Big Shot. Like All Through the Night, The Big Shot works, but mostly thanks to Bogart’s talents rather than to any of the filmmaking.

Bogart plays Duke Berne, a former big shot down on his luck, coming out of prison for the third time. He hooks up with shady lawyer Martin Fleming (Stanley Ridges), who sets him up with a team to rob an armored truck. But Fleming’s wife, Lorna (Irene Manning), convinces Duke to stay home from the robbery; we learn that they were lovers before Duke’s last stint in prison. Despite his innocence, Duke is accused of the crime and ends up in prison, along with an oblivious car salesman (Richard Travis), who perjures himself in court, paid to act as Duke’s alibi. While they’re in prison together, Duke’s humanity begins to show in his guilt for wrapping the salesman up in the whole mess of his life.

Early scenes of Bogart as this washed-up crime boss are compelling, but the story quickly falls into a more routine tale of gangster redemption. The script, by Bertram Millhauser, Abem Finkel, and Daniel Fuchs, makes the particularly poor choice of opening with a flashforward of Duke on his deathbed, the salesman and his girlfriend (Susan Peters) at his side. They tear up as he slowly dies—and so just a few minutes in, we already know this will end with Duke sacrificing himself to save the two kids. Whatever suspense there might have been vanishes from the rest of the film.

Bogart, of course, makes The Big Shot more compelling. Ridges contributes a charming and formidable villain, but he’s the only one in the cast up to the leading man’s standards. Manning’s star career began in 1942 and was over three years later, and watching her here, it’s easy to understand why it did not last longer. Travis and Peters are as bland as possible, though some of that can be blamed on the script. It was Bogart’s final gangster film, as soon after, he shot Casablanca and graduated to a new level of stardom. But he deserved a better finale to this era of his career—director Lewis Seiler throws a few semi-experimental touches into his transitions, but for the most part the film has a cheapness to it that feels far below Bogart’s standards.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on The Big Shot

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer