Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 22, 2021)
Between its title and the presence of Humphrey Bogart as its star, I expected 1950’s Chain Lightning to offer a crime-related story. Nope – instead we find Bogart as a test pilot.
Matt Brennan (Bogart) flew fighters in World War II, and now he attempts to turn that experience into a job with manufacturer Leland Willis (Raymond Massey). He gets the assignment to pilot a new craft called the JA-3.
Complications ensue, however, as aviation scientist Carl Troxell (Richard Whorf) wants to stall the mission to give him more time to develop the JA-4, a craft Matt thinks won’t be safe. Also, Matt re-encounters old flame Jo Holloway (Eleanor Parker) and needs to deal with ghosts from his past.
Woof – that sounds like a whole lot of potential melodrama. With the tagline “There’s a New Bogart Thrill In the Sky”, one would hope to get more of an action flick than anything else, but since the movie comes with a secondary promise of “that special brand of Bogart romance” as well, one should probably anticipate a fairly heaping helping of gooey material as well.
As it happens, an awful lot of Lightning follows that path – far too much, especially because the connection between Bogart and Parker doesn’t register. They create a couple without much zing, so we never quite buy their love affair.
It doesn’t help that Lightning tries desperately to invoke memories of Casablanca. The film opens with a long flashback to WWII, where we see Matt in action and his affair with Jo.
This section of the movie flops for a few reasons. In addition to the absence of chemistry between Bogart and Parker, the first act also sputters because it seems wholly unnecessary.
Did Casablanca falter because we didn’t spend 20 minutes with Rick and Ilsa pre-WWII? No – we eventually got some brief flashbacks, but the “present day” portions of the film told us everything we needed to know.
Rather than stay in the “modern” sections and give us the appropriate exposition, we find ourselves stuck with slow, unneeded material from the war. These scenes feel like filler, as though the filmmakers figured they needed to pad the running time to get to feature length.
Not that matters improve once we reach “present day”, for Lightning never gets any better. The connection between Bogart and Parker never improves, and the potential thrills remain less than scintillating.
Somewhere in this mess, there’s a decent story to be told, but the end result plods and bores. Essentially a lazy reworking of Casablanca, Lightning turns into a dud.