Directed by Stuart Heisler
Written by Liam O'Brien, Vincent B. Evans, and Lester Cole
I believe that it is true to say that the flash-forward opening has, by and large, been a force for evil; having resurged in popularity in the 2010s, it's perhaps the modern screenwriter's readiest device for shoving some action or tension into a film right away, lest you get bored and retire to your pornography. They didn't always use it well in the Golden Age, either, but while I've always felt like they usually used it for better reasons, Chain Lightning's got one that's a strong corrective to any assumption. So: in order to begin, it throws us all the way to the very end, where we find test pilot Matt Brennan (Humphrey Bogart) concluding the Air Force acceptance trials for a powerful new supersonic jet aircraft, the Willis JA-3. Presently his old flame Jo Holloway (Eleanor Parker), secretary to his boss, Leland Willis (Raymond Massey), bursts onto the airfield. She demands that the demonstration end—it's been successful so far, but Jo arrives with news from the factory that there's some unspecified problem with the aircraft, and a deadly one. As Matt takes it into a final (and, going by Willis's reaction, unplanned) test, Jo begs him to return to earth. Willis is even more insistent than she is, but when Matt asks him if he'd prefer him to come back "the easy way, or the hard way"—archetypical Bogart, that—and Willis provides a nonresponsive answer, Matt shrugs, yanks the headset out of the radio, and decides "the hard way" it is.
The best thing to be said about this chunk of finale vomited up to the beginning is that, by the time we return to it, you may have forgotten it, despite Chain Lightning's slim-and-sexy 94 minutes. I nearly had. Indeed, I'd begun to lightly congratulate myself on guessing the film-ending twist—lightly, because while it's a perfectly fine twist, it would be easily-guessed in any case—until I recalled that I didn't deduce anything. I'd practically been told. I watched those first five minutes again: actually, they don't quite tell you, but only through the most artless means imaginable—for whether it was director Stuart Heisler or the studio's idea, it's the exact same scene, except with several lines of dialogue roughly torn out after they decided to frontload it. This "hides" the pertinent facts, albeit very poorly.
You know what else would've hidden those facts? Linear time.
Meanwhile, it doesn't just spoil the twist, but does all kinds of other damage: for one thing, the film's principal driving force isn't the JA-3's acceptance trials, but a media-friendly stunt flight over the North Pole that constitutes its middle act—which we can now assume goes off without a hitch, considering that Matt's still alive and not a cloud of ashes settling over a field in Nova Scotia. I half-wonder if the goal wasn't to feebly play at being a thriller, for, as our story develops, the main human factor turns out to be the love triangle between Matt, Jo, and Willis's aeronautics engineer Carl Troxell (Richard Whorf). Carl's gotten increasingly resentful of Matt for reentering Jo's life—even though he's the one who made it possible—and Whorf has very sinister eyebrows. Thus it's possible to spend half the film wondering if Carl intends to sabotage his rival. This holds until the moment you realize that Carl is also the narrative's standard-bearer for, uh, pilot safety, and the value of human life over money, so even if he does want to marry Eleanor Parker, that's not unusual, and as a high-minded idealist in a 1950s film (a philosophical counterweight to Bogart's character's cynical indifference, no less) it's virtually impossible that Carl would ever actually take some hard, weird turn into cuckolded villainy. As for any perceived need to put some action into this tale of steely-eyed test pilots tottering on the edge of the unknown, as soon as we're done with the flash-forward we're treated to a flash-back, and not another five minutes have elapsed until we're over Nazi Germany in 1944 in a B-17.
I realize that's a lot of words spent harping on any movie's first five minutes—it's a far-less-than-optimal way to try to start summarizing the plot, too—but I harp because it's such an inexplicably awful move for a film that, otherwise, is so stolidly good (not to mention so appealing to my personal niche interests), that I can't help but love it a little. I'd have preferred to love it a lot. That probably wasn't ever really in the cards—it's good, but only in isolated moments is it great—but there's much that's loveable about it, not least that aforementioned runtime, and the way a film that, fundamentally, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about military procurement with some character drama thrown in is so immaculately right-sized for that task.
—the perfect runtime, as ancient mathematicians proved more than two millennia ago.
Despite its ass-backwards structure, Chain Lightning moves only in a straight line once we swing back to the mid-40s and find Matt, a respected officer in the USAAF's VIII Bomber Command, currently on his 25th (and therefore final) mission flying against the Third Reich. Along for the ride is Carl, who's been sent from either Boeing or Gen. Bennett Meyers's office (he wears a uniform, but is also identified as a designer on the B-17) to evaluate various crew complaints. Matt is happy to reiterate them, presumably channeling co-screenwriter Vincent Evans, a crewman on the most famous of all B-17s, the Memphis Belle, where he'd served as bombardier and also as William Wyler's advisor on Story of a Flying Fortress. On this final flight, Matt and Carl behold the wunder of the Germans' new waffen—the Messerschmitt Komet, a very dubious aircraft whose rocket-powered speed nevertheless strikes a chord of awe with Matt and Carl. But they survive, and return to base where Matt does his level best to get his commander's permission to wed his girl, Jo—presently in the auxiliary—but fails. Matt's sent back to the States forthwith, and sometime between 1944 and the next time we see him, in 1949, he's degenerated into a traveling aerobat and three-dollar-a-lesson flight instructor.
By chance, he meets Carl and Jo again, and the former secures him a job as Willis's chief test pilot—partly out of political expedience, since the general in charge of the new jet plane project recalls Matt with inordinate fondness despite his, er, mavericky ways, but also partly out of weird self-lacerating jealousy on Carl's part—and Matt takes to his new position right away. Indeed, within months he's actively undermining Carl and become Willis's favorite employee. Carl, working on the even newer JA-4, promises its ejection system is the frontier for aviation safety. But Willis, with Matt as his sarcastic but still-obedient yes-man, demurs; the JA-3 is the model for full-scale production. To seal that deal, Matt offers to take the JA-3 on a daredevil flight from Nome to D.C. across the North Pole, though he'll only do it for an enormous payday, cash being all that Matt desires anymore, insofar as he seems to desire anything, even Jo.
Character drama, yes, but also airsploitation, and perhaps airsploitation in its purest form—the Koreas weren't at war yet, and WWII and even the Cold War itself only serve as a springboard for Chain Lightning's more essential concerns of aircraft design and aircraft testing; its goal is never just to clumsily toss stock footage at you for the sake of air combat thrills. (Chain Lightning's merging of documentary air war and its gimboled mock-up of a Flying Fortress cockpit is perfectly sound as far as that questionable technique goes, though of course it has the usual problems with making it feel like the imagery occupies the same universe, let alone the same battle. One choice of footage caused me to vocally exclaim, "take that, you Nazi orchard!" Yet for all that, the sudden appearance of the Komet genuinely works: I believed it was a special effect of a Komet making a run at a B-17—a good effect!—but it turned out to be real footage, and that's quite cool indeed.)
Airsploitation would continue to hold on for a while. But by 1950 the culture was already moving on to aerospacesploitation; Destination Moon meant spaceflight flicks, particularly as they were rather less likely to be superseded by real developments; consider 1952's The Sound Barrier, about British engineers being the first to achieve supersonic flight (five years after Chuck Yeager already did it), or 1957's Jet Pilot, a museum piece by the time Howard Hughes finished with it. Chain Lightning puts a buffer in, by virtue of one rather-less-than-plausible aircraft—a 1200mph cruising speed, a ferry range that may as well be measured in the jillions, effectively a slower SR-71 two decades before its time—though in paying homage to the Bell X-1, it's a gorgeous piece of pulp fiction futurism, aesthetically already a throwback. Hollywood aviation supplier Paul Mantz built a "real" JA-3, and it's persuasive enough: just being a big object capable of throwing out jet exhaust and moving on a runway, sometimes in long shots where special photography would otherwise have been used, does much to cement its reality. The flight scenes, though, these are almost abstractions—they put Bogart in a cockpit set and gesture at the idea of G-forces, but the modal exterior shot of the JA-3 is a model with speed lines racing across a rear-projected background, jet flight as an essentialized idea far more than a realistic portrayal of it.
Now, it also looks cheap, and between the aforementioned runtime, and effects that were good in 1950 but hardly cutting edge, there's a whiff of B-movie here. I kind of like that anyway, but that whiff's dispelled by several other aspects of the production: firstly by the quantity of effects (it never feels remotely like Heisler's straining his studio budget), and secondly by the participation of A-production talent on both sides of the camera. It's handsomely shot by legitimate cinematographer Ernie Haller, and Heisler brings a superb Old Hollywood straightforwardness to the style. There's not a lot of showiness to Chain Lightning on the ground—even if I seriously dig the 30s-style dissolve montage of checklist items during the JA-3s initial trials, which is such a cheeky way to try to convince us that military-industrial bureaucracy is interesting (I think it may be an actual joke, and Chain Lightning has a fairly witty screenplay generally)—but there's a great deal of rock-solid storytelling to how Heisler's camera quietly moves in on actors under pressure, and how edits are judged for maximum impact. The very last shot is as romantic, in both senses of the term, as a test pilot movie could get.
As for the A-list actors, all are at least fine—Massey's good, even if his irritable shithead capitalist doesn't play to his declamatory strengths; Whorl is a worthwhile foil; Parker is credibly lovelorn—but then there's its star. It was Bogart's next-to-last movie for Warners before he started his own production company; if he was disinvested, he doesn't show it. I expect the performance is never going to make anybody's "favorite Bogart" list, but at turns it's strikingly good. It's a bit of a re-run of Key Largo—disgruntled veteran who has run out of shits to give about anything—though now it's tuned less toward cosmic nihilism, and more toward a grubbier kind of alienation, with the screenplay offering sharp observations about the dumping of highly-skilled aeronauts like him onto a civilian market that has no use for them. It's in the same laconic universe as virtually all Bogart performances, but it's also apt to surprise you with its intensities, especially the look on his face when, in a moment of stress, Matt shatters a glass in his hand. (Hope it was stage-glass.) Damnable pity about that flash-forward prologue, then, which tends to put us way too far ahead of our sullen hero as he undergoes his moral arc—because I don't know if there's a single other thing about Chain Lightning that I don't like.
That which is indistinguishable from magic:
- The film's title refers to an obscure atmospheric phenomenon and has absolutely fuck-all to do with anything. But it sounds so rad.
- The JA-3 really is a hell of an aircraft for 1949, when the film was shot (and while it's "speculative fiction"—I'll cop, the main reason it's a "Cardboard Science" entry is that I haven't done one in a year—I don't think it's about the future). Anyway, the JA-3 has specs that exceed any aircraft of its time, particularly in terms of sustained performance; an aircraft would not manage a supersonic cruise for five more years, and certainly not at 1200mph when it did, and the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the plane Yeager trashes in The Right Stuff for no good Goddamned reason and the first designed for supercruise flight, certainly didn't have its range. It's not quite magic, as aircraft would eventually exceed it, but in 1949 it may well have seemed that way.
- I'm pretty sure that when the JA-3 glides for like two hundred miles when Matt runs out of gas, that's what we'd call "artistic license."
The morality of the past, in the future!:
- Vincent Evans gets all political, five years after the fact, packing as many grievances against the Flying Fortress into this screenplay as he can. It's kind of weird, but also kind of a weirdly charming thing for a movie to do. At least he didn't have to fly in a B-24, which I understand were despised by most everybody not involved with the industrial end of it, and disfavored by everybody who'd ever had any experience with both planes.
- Chain Lightning is the kind of movie that could only be made in the late 40s or 50s, deeply optimistic about how the as-yet-unnamed military-industrial complex would inevitably win out over venal capitalistic concerns, and hopeful that it was not just a counterbalance to totalitarianism, but a promethean force capable of bringing marvels to all humankind. Now we have a country where half the people believe Drexlerian nanobots are real but the vaccines the deep state puts them in are fake. Oh well, check out this cool paperwork montage!:
- Viz. the Komet, "I thought Buck Rogers was on our side!"
- For a film that obviously isn't that interested in a poetic exploration of the upper reaches of the atmosphere and the boundaries of space, it manages it anyway, from the first strike of the Komet to the final frame, and in every weird grayscale netherrealm the JA-3 plies as it makes its way across the Arctic.
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