Hard-boiled circus boss Nick Coster (Humphrey Bogart) and his devoted if long-suffering fortune teller girlfriend Flo (Sylvia Sydney) struggle to keep their show on the road in the face of endless adversity. When a drunken lion tamer lets a big cat get loose small town grocery clerk Matt Varney (Eddie Albert) subdues the beast, saving a little girl's life. He becomes a local hero sparking an idea in Nick to revive the circus' flagging fortunes. Sure enough Nick brings Matt into the circus, slowly moulding the likeable lad into a first-rate lion tamer until fate takes an unfortunate turn.
Sandwiched between High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in the year Humphrey Bogart finally became a star, The Wagons Roll At Night was the first film where he was top-billed. It is an offbeat if inconsistent mix of comedy, romance and tragedy that nevertheless proves a fun precursor to Cecil B. DeMille's more grandiose circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). What the film lacks in spectacle it makes up for in a heady milieu, lively sideshow characters and breakneck pace. Few films move as fast as vintage Warner Brothers product. This rattles along at a furious clip with vivid montage sequences painting a more compelling story than DeMille arguably managed.
The plot keeps shifting from Frank Capra-esque small town comedy (the lion invading Matt's store is played for laughs), hard-boiled pulp (two-fisted Nick capably dealing with the scummier side of circus life) and eventually psychological drama. Things take a nasty turn after vengeful lion tamer Hoffman the Great (Sig Ruman) gets himself mauled by a lion and poor Matt lands the blame. Sweet natured Flo and the circus gang spirit Matt away from the law and onto a farm belonging to Nick's family where he ends up falling for Nick's fresh-faced kid sister Mary. Which is perfectly understandable since Mary is played by perennial sweetheart Joan Leslie at her most angelically lovable. It is here that the psychological angle kicks in as this romance invokes Nick's displeasure.
Although Eddie Albert is entirely affable as the hayseed hero who only ever sees the good in people ("If you look at it a certain way, a lion is nothing more than a large chipmunk") and Sylvia Sydney (whose noir beauty will come as a revelation to those only familiar with her later roles in Tim Burton movies) deeply affecting as wounded huckster girl Flo (there is a beautiful scene where Matt confesses his love for Mary without realising he is broken Flo's heart), the most complex character of the bunch is naturally essayed by Bogie. Tough, charismatic yet harbouring a secret sensitive side, Nick is also wracked with self-loathing. He is trapped in a huckster's life and, though confesses he would rather do this than linger on the breadline, is determined to preserve in aspic the one aspect of his life he still sees as pure. Which is his sister. So poor Matt faces an uphill struggle. Nick's self-loathing, encapsulated in his simultaneous devotion and contempt for circus folk, is a surprisingly dark angle for such an outwardly jolly film. On top of that the innocent farmyard romance between Matt and Mary adds a layer of sweetness, borderline sappiness really, at odds with the brooding undertones. The film is psychologically complex without really kicking into high gear. Bogie's third act transformation into a murderous bully simply does not ring true and the tragic outcome belongs in a different movie.