Both critically and popularly, Chain Lightning gets classified as one of Bogart’s lesser, late 1940s films. While the film certainly is a star vehicle for Bogart, it’s only “lesser” if one compares it to Bogart’s stellar films (basically, the ones everyone remembers). On its own, Chain Lightning is far from perfect, but it’s a fine film. Director Stuart Heisler can direct some good scenes–since the film’s about a test pilot, there’s a lot of Bogart-only scenes, which Heisler handles (he has trouble when it’s a group scene). The special effects are quite good and they’re another thing Heisler incorporates well. I was about to say he didn’t do the romance scenes right, but there’s one scene between Bogart and Eleanor Parker where I can say I’ve never seen the shots before or since, so he does good on that aspect too.
The problems with Chain Lightning come from its lack of prestige. It’s about a test pilot, Bogart’s the only “star,” as Parker probably wouldn’t become a star for another year or two. (Apparently, Chain Lightning’s release was even held up for a year). The film’s got some really dynamic character relationships–between Bogart and Parker (he abandoned her in Europe during the war when he went home for no reason other than laziness), between Parker and Bogart’s rival Richard Whorf, and between Bogart and Whorf. Except none of the relationships are standard–Whorf, for instance, thinks the world of Bogart’s pilot, while never doubting Parker will choose him (even though, obviously, the audience knows different). Bogart gets to come across as petty and mercenary, to degrees I don’t think I’ve ever seen him go before (even in Casablanca, which is probably the best comparison). It’s just too short.
At ninety-five minutes, with multiple special effects sequences and a five or six year present action (some takes place during the war, then in 1950… sorry, 1949), it’s way too short. There’s not enough fat on the script to pad out the film, so it’s just the one straight gesture and the writers can’t quite make it work without hokey voiceovers and narration. For some of it, most of it in the middle, actually, I kept thinking it was so much better than I remembered it being (then the final act came around). Still, it’s certainly not a bad or even mediocre film. It has a lot going for it.