|Index||5 reviews in total|
The Big Gamble opens on New Year's eve, with a broke gambler trying to figure out how to work his way out of debt. Alan Beckwith (Bill Boyd) gets local thug Andrew North (Warner Oland) and Beverly Ames (Dorothy Sebastian) involved in a scheme to come up with money fast. Viewers will recognize Warner Oland as the lead in all the Charlie Chan movies in the 1930s. Also keep an eye out for James Gleason as Squint Dugan, small time crook. He will go on to play the ultimate slow-witted New York police lieutenant in just about every film made in the 1940s. Zasu Pitts plays Dugan's wife, maid to the Beckwiths. Sound and light quality are a little iffy, but that can be forgiven, since it was the early days of talkies. The dialogue is all a bit stilted and hesitating, apparently since everyone was new to the live sound track. Director Fred Niblo only made two more films after this one. Niblo had an interesting history; his brother- in- law was George M. Cohan, and Niblo was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures. Not the strongest script or acting, but its a fun, low-key film. Even a couple surprises.
William Boyd is willing to kill himself for enough insurance money to
pay off his debts, but crime boss Warner Oland raises the stakes: a
year and a day, and the money will nominally be paid to wife-for-hire
Dorothy Sebastian. But a lot can happen in a year...
Shot beautifully by under-rated DP Hal Mohr, this movie, with a newly mobile sound camera is very good visually. Unfortunately, leads Boyd and Sebastian are not quite out of the silent era and director Fred Niblo is not so good at directing the dialogue -- nor does the depression that the leads evince for the first half of the movie, help things much. James Gleason and Zasu Pitts are, of course, excellent, but, despite an excitingly shot finale,the acting prevents this from being more than an averagely good picture.
"The Big Gamble" has one of the most provocative premises ever cooked
up for a movie. World-weary gambler Alan Beckwith (William "Hopalong
Cassidy" Boyd in a surprisingly despairing modern-dress role) is tired
of life. Owing $5,000 to the sinister Andrew North (Warner Oland) and
$2,500 to a former servant, Beckwith cooks up the idea of having North
take out an insurance policy on his life, then killing himself. North
insists that the policy be for $100,000; that a North-hired hit man do
the actual killing (since if Beckwith commits suicide, the policy
becomes invalid); that Beckwith live a year and a day after taking out
the policy; and that Beckwith's wife be the beneficiary. When Beckwith
protests that he doesn't have a wife, North supplies him one: Beverly
Ames (Dorothy Sebastian), who's under North's influence because her
brother Johnny (William Collier, Jr.) is also on the hook to him. The
good news is in the striking performances of both leads - and of James
Gleason and ZaSu Pitts as a comic-relief couple (though I have a hard
time watching Pitts in comic roles without thinking of how Hollywood
wasted her talent as a dramatic actress despite her incandescent
performance as Trina in Stroheim's "Greed," which should have done for
her what "Sybil" and "Norma Rae" did for Sally Field 50 years later)
and some intriguingly proto-noir compositions by cinematographer Hal
The bad news is Fred Niblo's surprisingly slow, stodgy direction - by 1931 virtually no one was still having the actors pause between hearing their cues and speaking their own lines, but Niblo directs like it was still 1929 - Mohr's mostly plain, uncreative cinematography (which doesn't sustain the marvelous atmospherics of the opening scenes), and some dubious performances by the supporting players. William Collier, Jr. comes off way too queeny as Johnny - we can't muster much sympathy for someone this wimpy - and Warner Oland, though playing a character with an Anglo name, inexplicably not only wears his Charlie Chan makeup but speaks in his Charlie Chan voice. Though a previous silent version of this story was made, "The Big Gamble" really should have been filmed a third time in the 1940's; its plot would have been a natural for film noir.
Someone wrote here "could have been better." There probably has never
been a movie of which that couldn't have been said. Nevertheless, it is
true here: The story needed to be fleshed out, with more details of how
the good guys almost got out of their mess.
The cast names bespeak a quality production; the director was a good one; the editor, Joseph Kane, did a great job with what he had, and, as an aside, it's interesting that he, as so many other editors, later became a crackerjack director himself.
Bill Boyd was a great favorite with audiences, especially in his "Hopalong Cassidy" days, and with, especially, Cecil B. DeMille. He was a good actor, but was even more a strong personality.
Dorothy Sebastian was a beautiful woman and, especially in this movie, a good, intense actress. She died awfully young, and in her last roles didn't even get screen credit. That seems a shame.
Prolific James Gleason got second billing, even over the female love interest, and made his usual hit. He was around a long time, but we could use a character actor like him today.
Other cast members deserve praise too, as does the stunt work. All in all, this is a good movie, perfect for a relaxing watch.
The film begins with William Boyd (later known to the world as Hopalong
Cassiday) meeting Warner Oland in a restaurant. It seems that Boyd owes
gangster Oland $5000 and instead of paying him back, he has an
intriguing proposition--he'll kill himself and make it look like an
accident to that Oland gets his money. Oland likes the idea but isn't
interested in just a paltry five grand, so he modifies the idea. Since
most policies won't pay off for the first year, Oland will arrange a
sham marriage and support Boyd and his new bride for one year--then an
"accident" will occur. And, to make sure that nothing happens to Boyd
in the meantime (such as cold feet), Oland arranges to have gunman
James Gleason follow him and make sure nothing happens during that
year. Now too surprisingly, suicidal Boyd actually falls in love with
this arranged wife and by now it's too late--Oland won't let him out of
This plot is very tough to believe and needlessly complicated. Arranging for a wife as well as Gleason seems a bit like overkill. Simply having Oland be the beneficiary seems to make far less sense--but, of course, this changes the plot and then there's no reason for Boyd to change his mind. Despite this rather substantial plot hole and a slow first half of the film, it all managed to pull itself together in the second half--and culminating with a very well-staged chase scene where you DON'T have cheap rear-projected shots and you have some very violent and realistic elements (making it perhaps the best car chase of the era). No cheap stock footage here or a crash that looks ridiculous--it's very well done and made my heart race.
Overall, this is a B-movie with some serious flaws, but provided you can just watch the film without questioning them, you'll be very pleasantly surprised by the end--nearly earning this film an 8. A good job of acting by all except Oland--whose delivery, unfortunately, isn't too much better than his Charlie Chan character in other films!
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