The Big Gamble (1931): The coolest car chase you have never seen!

The real buzz is the climactic car chase filmed on real streets at night… a “remarkable chase between a train and two cars, using a real exterior at night, with light source placed on the lower side of the street and on a mobile platform accompanying camera during its tracking movements”.

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:

4 thoughts on “The Big Gamble (1931): The coolest car chase you have never seen!”

  1. A nice discovery. It looks like Niblo learned something from Ben-Hur. By the standard of the period, it’s worthy of Roland West. I especially like how the camera lingers inside Gleason’s car after he makes that spilled-milk crack, as if both Oland and the other fellow are thinking, “You did not just say that!”

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  2. A great discovery indeed Samuel, I quite agree. And I was ready to mention Niblo in the “Ben Hur” context, but you’ve done it first. Warner Oland will forever be known as Charlie Chan, and the essay by Vernet firmly plants this film in a most influential context in the origins of noir. Wonderful capsule here!

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  3. I can see why this review is the leading link at the WondersintheDark Monday Morning Diary. It’s not only very well-written, but it’s a significant re-discovery worth seeking out. Oland is a personal favorite for Charlie Chan.

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