Previously filmed in 1926 as the silent Red Dice, The Big Gamble stars William (“Bill”) Boyd as a suicidal gambler who hatches a deal with mobster Warner Oland to take out a life insurance policy to clear debts of $7,500. The dastardly Oland ups the ante by taking out a policy for $100,000, and forcing Boyd into a sham marriage so the ‘wife’ can collect for Oland. A b-melodrama from RKO-Pathe, the movie is obscure to say the least (TCM has the rights), but apart from the crime scenario and theme of entrapment there are significant elements of interest to film noir aficionados.
French film academic Marc Vernet refers to the movie in an influential article on the nature and origins of film noir, ‘Film Noir on the Edge of Doom’ (Joan Copjec, ed. (1993) Shades of Noir. London and New York: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-625-1, pp. 1–31.), which I discussed in a recent post on Vernet’s views on the French recognition of noir. Vernet in his discussion also points outs that although expressionism in Hollywood movies up to the 1940s was rare it was in evidence as early as 1915 in the early films of DeMille well before the rise of the European emigre directors in late 30s and 40s Hollywood. Vernet points to the use of noir lighting in two pivotal scenes in The Big Gamble: a card game in the dark backroom of a speak-easy where Boyd is is trying to win enough cash to buy himself out of a the deal with Orland, and a scene soon after when he breaks-in to Orland’s apartment.
But the real buzz is the climactic car chase filmed on real streets at night. In Vernet’s words the sequence is a “remarkable chase between a train and two cars, using a real exterior at night, with a light source placed on the lower side of the street and on a mobile platform accompanying the camera during its tracking movements”. Director Fred Niblo and DP Hal Mohr, with great editing by Joseph Kane, put together a breathtaking climax. This clip shows the complete chase: