Stuart Heisler’s Chain Lightning is a moderately interesting and entertaining postwar aviation saga with Humphrey Bogart in the pilot’s seat with some nifty special effects but burdened by an underdeveloped romantic triangle.
The Production: 3/5
With his long-term contract coming to an end at Warner Bros., Humphrey Bogart took flight in his penultimate effort for the studio, Stuart Heisler’s Chain Lightning. Among Bogart enthusiasts, it’s not one of his higher ranking efforts, and the film’s rather empty love triangle that bounces around the edges of the plot doesn’t do the movie any favors, but there is some interesting exploration of early jet flights contained within the film’s 95-minute running time, and it all adds up to an enjoyable if uneven good time.
A demanding bomber pilot during World War II who was highly critical of the B-17 planes the boys were using to fight the Axis powers, Matthew “Matt” Brennan (Humphrey Bogart) is transferred stateside after completing successfully his twenty-five missions over Europe leaving behind his Red Cross nurse girl friend Jo Holloway (Eleanor Parker) in London. After the war with his flight school gone bust, he’s offered a job by aviation expert Carl Troxell (Richard Whorf) to become a test pilot for Willis Aircraft who are building jet planes after the successful tests of Chuck Yeager opened up this new field of aviation. Owner Leland Willis (Raymond Massey) wants to be the first to make a Nome to Washington jet flight in 4 ½ hours, but he’s counting on Matt to solve the many problems such a flight would entail, and he’s got not only Carl working against him on an improved jet to the model Matt will be piloting but also the reentry into his life of Jo who now serves as Willis’ private secretary and who is now dating Carl.
The screenplay by Liam O’Brien and Vincent B. Evans does a far better job with the forays into jet piloting than with any of the tepid romantic interludes between Matt, Jo, and Carl that the movie attempts to make more interesting than they actually are. (The film implies Matt and Jo became intimate right before he returned stateside and then he never kept in touch after the war thus causing both sides to feel bruised and unloved. It’s on the level of junior high school romantic interplay.) Director Stuart Heisler stages an exciting final mission over Germany for Matt and his crew (where they first glimpse an experimental German jet and are set back in their seats), and the movie’s set piece is another corker: Matt’s flight from Nome to Washington where he must grapple with a stubborn rocket eject system, the loss of cabin pressure which causes momentary unconsciousness, his fuel supply depleting more rapidly than planned, and recalcitrant weather which he fears has knocked him off course. Because the script’s narrative is fashioned as a flashback, we see the opening sequence twice while we try to piece together the real explanation for what appears to be a suicide mission. Actions and reactions do come into clearer focus the second time around once we know everything that has led these individuals to this moment.
Bogie eases into his test pilot duds quite believably (though the pressure suit he fashions for his test flight gives him a similar form to the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and does what he can with the abortive romantic narrative he’s saddled with. Eleanor Parker had been in some fine films before this one, but she was now close to entering the most interesting period of her career (her next film would be Caged which earned her the first of three Oscar nominations) so her work here, as sincere as it is, seems almost a waste of her talent. Richard Whorf gives a determined and often enthusiastic performance as aircraft expert Carl Troxell, and Raymond Massey matches him in enthusiasm as aircraft manufacturer Leland Willis. Solid supporting work is also offered by Roy Roberts as General Hewitt and Morris Ankrum as plant supervisor Ed Bostwick.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully represented in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is very good except in glamour close-ups of the stars. The grayscale is spot-on as well with rich black levels and crisp whites. Contrast has been dialed in quite astutely, and the overall image is pretty much perfection. The movie has been divided into 32 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is typical of its era but solid and with good fidelity. Dialogue has been masterfully recorded and has been mixed well with the background score by David Buttolph and the multiple sound effects which blanket the movie. There are no instances with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter.
Special Features: 2/5
Bear Feat (6:53, HD): 1947 animated short
So You Want to Be An Actor (10:56, SD): 1949 Joe McDoakes short
Theatrical Trailer (2:10, HD)
Stuart Heisler’s Chain Lightning is a moderately interesting and entertaining postwar aviation saga with Humphrey Bogart in the pilot’s seat with some nifty special effects but burdened by an underdeveloped romantic triangle. The Warner Archive Blu-ray looks and sounds quite wonderful, and for fans of the stars or the genre, they certainly wouldn’t want to miss it.
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