Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Big Gamble (RKO-Pathé, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got home in time for me to run us an intriguing movie I’d recorded that morning on TCM: The Big Gamble, a 1932 film from the short-lived combination of RKO and Pathé (David O. Selznick combined the two studios into one during his year-long tenure as RKO production head, and later bought Pathé’s actual physical plant and made it Selznick International) made from a novel called The Iron Chalice by Octavus Roy Cohen (a white writer who usually wrote about Blacks, which makes me wonder if this story were originally about Blacks and RKO reworked it with a white cast) with one of the most provocative premises ever put forth for a movie.

Gambler Alan Beckwith (William Boyd, best known as Hopalong Cassidy and surprisingly good in a modern-dress role) reaches New Year’s Eve totally disillusioned with life — the fact that he’s broke and owes $7,500 to two people, $2,500 to a former servant and $5,000 to sinister fellow gambler Andrew North (Warner Oland) isn’t helping, but his world-weariness goes further than that — and so he confronts North at Markstein’s restaurant on the last night of the year and offers him a macabre proposition. Beckwith will take out a life-insurance policy, name North as his beneficiary, and then kill himself, thereby settling his debts and exiting a life he no longer wants. North insists that the policy be for $100,000 and informs Beckwith that the only way the insurance company will pay is if he lives for at least a year and a day after he takes it out and if he doesn’t actually commit suicide. North offers to support Beckwith for the required period, says he’ll hire a hit man to murder him at the end of it, and to preserve his own plausible deniability insists that Beckwith’s wife be the pro-forma beneficiary. When Beckwith protests that he doesn’t have a wife, North supplies him with one: Beverly Ames (Dorothy Sebastian), who’s forced to go along with North’s scheme because her brother Johnny (William Collier, Jr.) is also on the hook to North.

The opening scene promises a movie of real distinction, as director Fred Niblo and cinematographer Hal Mohr shoot some marvelous proto-noir atmosphere shots of Beckwith approaching and entering Markstein’s. Alas, despite some first-rate acting by the leads and also by James Gleason (more restrained than usual) and ZaSu Pitts (a first-rate dramatic actress, as she proved in an incandescent performance in Stroheim’s Greed, whom Hollywood wasted in one ditzy comic role after another) as a comic-relief couple — he’s North’s marvelously incompetent would-be hit man and she’s the newlyweds’ maid — The Big Gamble largely fails to live up to the potential of its wild story premise. Most of Niblo’s direction is surprisingly stodgy — if you ever wondered why someone who’d helmed such prestigious silents as the Douglas Fairbanks Three Musketeers, Valentino’s Blood and Sand and the 1926 Ben-Hur didn’t make it that far into the sound era, his disappointing work here, particularly the long pauses between the actors’ cue lines and their own (an annoying feature of many early talkies from 1928 and 1929 but one most directors had grown beyond by 1931), makes it clear — and those few proto-noir compositions aside, most of Mohr’s work is visually plain and far more straightforward than what this story needed.

Also, as finely honed as the leads are (Dorothy Sebastian in particular is an actress who should have had more of a career than she did — she was the female lead in Buster Keaton’s last silent film, Spite Marriage, and played a superb villainess in MGM’s early-talkie thriller The Unholy Night), some of the supporting performances are rather dubious. William Collier, Jr. is way too queeny as brother Johnny — when he falls in love, sort of, with hard-bitten blonde Mae Robbins (a marvelous performance by June MacCloy anticipating the style of Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell at Warners) it’s all too clear who’s going to be wearing the pants in that family — and, though he’s playing a character with an Anglo name, Warner Oland inexplicably not only wears his Charlie Chan makeup but even speaks in his Charlie Chan voice. In the opening scene at Markstein’s I joked that the waiter would be saying, “Good evening, Mr. Ch- — I mean, Mr. North.” The Big Gamble was apparently a remake of a 1926 silent called Red Dice, but it hasn’t been filmed since — which is something of a surprise since one would think the basic story (though with the tragic ending it demanded instead of the “happy” cop-out ending it actually got here) would have made a perfect film noir and an ideal vehicle for Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum as the male lead (and — who else? — Sydney Greenstreet as North).