Heat Lightning demonstrates what Warner Bros. lost when Mervyn LeRoy, the movie's director, pulled up stakes and decamped for MGM three years later -- he did, of course, direct some extremely important and acclaimed pictures for Warner Bros., but it is a little 63-minute diamond in the rough like this movie that showed his ability where it really counted, taking a quiet little story and making it memorable, not just in the acting and the tone, but the look of the picture and the visuals. Obviously shot very quickly, and on a low budget for the studio, the picture benefits from lots of clever and subtle camera work, especially for its introductory segments, in which we meet protagonists Aline McMahon and Ann Dvorak, as two siblings at odds over their past and their future -- both sink their teeth into two of the juicier roles (at least, in terms of the actual writing) of their respective careers, and run with the parts; and the same can be said for Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot, the latter in one of his better weasle-type roles (see Three On A Match) -- in another year or two, it would have been Humphrey Bogart and Alan Jenkins in those parts. True, there are lots of places where the plot anticipates The Petrified Forest that make it interesting viewing on that basis -- and it should be said that the original George Abbott/Leon Abrams play on which this movie was based ran for a month on Broadway in the fall of 1933, more than a year before Robert Sherwood's The Petrified Forest opened on Broadway. But Heat Lightning makes a very full course of entertainment (especially for just over an hour of screen time) in its own right, and is well worth re-discovering in the twenty-first century.
by Bruce Eder review