Michael Curtiz’s wartime tale of Devil’s Island convict Humphrey Bogart fighting to get back and defend France has a still-controversial scene of violence. The convoluted storyline nests enough flashbacks-within-flashbacks to confuse any viewer, and packs the screen with every actor on the Warner lot who can handle a foreign accent. With Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, George Tobias, and Michèle Morgan.
Passage to Marseille
Warner Archive Collection
1944 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 109 min. / Street Date November 10, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Michèle Morgan, Philip Dorn, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, George Tobias, Helmut Dantine, John Loder, Victor Francen, Vladimir Sokoloff, Eduardo Ciannelli.
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Art Direction Carl Julius Weyl
Film Editor Owen Marks
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Casey Robinson, Jock Moffitt from a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
Produced by Jack L. Warner
Directed by Michael Curtiz
This Warner Archives release supports what I suspected — some of its new Blu-rays appear chosen to take advantage of newly-completed video remasters. 1944’s Passage to Marseille came on out DVD in 2006, and it looked pretty drab. A 100% dedicated WW2 propaganda picture, it’s never been a favorite despite enlisting several stars from Casablanca and seemingly every male actor on the lot capable of managing a French accent. Humphrey Bogart gets away with growling in his normal educated New York tough guy drawl. The jump to restored HD yields quite a surprise – revealing glowing cinematography by James Wong Howe and a production top-heavy with ingenious, if rather funky, special effects.
Passage To Marseille has good intentions and surely played well to wartime audiences, but it suffers from a surfeit of propagandizing. Critic James Agee expressed a lack of excitement about the film’s standard patriotic stance, which now reads as a little stuffy — not everybody had the luxury of England’s Powell and Pressburger, making personal wartime movies that suggested that Germans were once reasonable neighbors and will be again. But Agee’s open contempt for one rather savage scene is more than justified. Other critics complained that Passage To Marseille was just too much noble chest beating for one movie, even with the chance to see Humphrey Bogart strike back at the Bosch.
At a secret Free French bomber squadron in England, war correspondent Manning (John Loder) learns from Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains) about some of the French volunteers. FLASHBACK A: In 1940, Freycinet was on a French ship en route to Marseilles when it picked up a canoe of half-dead men. Pompous fellow passenger Major Duval (Sydney Greenstreet), doesn’t believe the castaways’ story, so the sympathetic Freycinet investigates. The survivors admit that they’re escapees from Devil’s Island. FLASHBACK B: Escapee Renault (Philip Dorn) tells the story of conditions in the horrible island prison, and also about how the old ex-convict “Grandpere” (Vladimir Sokoloff) offered to help them escape. FLASHBACK C: Renault explains to Grandpere the background of Jean Matrac (Bogart), an anti-Nazi journalist framed for murder by French Fascists, and taken away from his new bride to Devil’s Island. BACK TO FLASHBACK B: With Matrac leading, the escapees slip out of prison and use Grandpere’s canoe to get away. BACK TO FLASHBACK A: Freycinet tells the escapees not to worry, as both he and the sympathetic Captain Malo (Victor Francen) believe that their country will want every man it can get. But word comes that France has surrendered to Germany and a collaborating government has been established in Vichy. Discovering that Malo intends to divert his cargo of nickel ore to England, the closeted Fascist Duval organizes a mutiny backed by the engine room staff. Duval embraces the New Order, because the Germans know the meaning of discipline. (The story eventually gets out of FLASHBACK A and returns to the secret bomber base in England.)
As the synopsis above should make clear, Passage To Marseille’s convoluted flashback structure makes the whole movie play like a bedtime story: We know that the prisoners will escape, that Matrac will end up unjustly punished on Devil’s Island, etc. The flashback structure bogs the show down, making us feel as if the narrative is progressing in reverse half the time. As each level of story (for us) plays in the present tense, we receive a mental whiplash effect each time a flashback ends and we boomerang back into the ‘present.’ Which present? Are we on the boat or back in England? Wait, I wasn’t thinking for a minute. Is Bogart bombing Germany before he’s a prisoner or afterwards? Curse you, Citizen Kane — for inspiring movies that twist their timelines into a pretzel, with no measurable dramatic payoff. I wonder how Nordoff and Hall’s original book Men Without Country handles its story, if it’s even the same story.
Meanwhile, the movie lays on the pro- Free French rhetoric with a trowel. It’s a hundred minutes of waving the Cross of Lorraine. As good as that aim is, the writing is laughable. The convicts include an ax murderer and Peter Lorre’s surly safecracker, yet to a man they are completely and humorlessly committed to patriotic values. Every decent Frenchman hates the Germans and despises the lickspittles and appeasers that sold their country down the Seine.
Looking backward, it’s easy to understand Passage To Marseille’s portrayal of France as a tireless and united foe of Germany. Forgotten now is the fact that that nation’s pre-war image was marred by petty corruption, political scandal and craven appeasement. If anything, the earlier Casablanca encouraged the notion of French cynicism and detachment from pressing threats. The lack of humor is the key to this film. Some Hollywood movies late in the war became fixated on Nazi and Japanese atrocities — Objective, Burma!, Edge of Darkness. The sometimes-cynical jokes in earlier, lighter morale-building pictures afforded depth to unlikely characters and prevented dialogue from being dominated by slogans and patriotic oaths. The classy handling of movies of this sort reached its zenith in Casablanca, of course. In Passage To Marseille everyone is motivated by a noble or sentimental cause and most every word spoken relates to that theme. Bogart’s Matrac hates Germans and has learned to hate France. George Tobias’ Petit wants to kill all the Germans, etc.
If anything, Michael Curtiz’ direction makes all of this too slick, like the extensive model work that invents a mostly fantastic disguised combat airfield hiding in plain sight on the English countryside. Warners’ special effects experts used miniatures for exciting battle scenes, in hyped-up combat pictures like Air Force and Action in the North Atlantic. Here we get the usual quota of dynamic model planes, more representational than realistic, but also some amazingly detailed, wholly artificial French landscapes. A model car toddles hesitatingly down a curving roadway, which has a big groove cut into it to facilitate a puppeteer. Model cows wag their tails and nod their heads! We almost expect to see a Tex Avery sign reading, “What do you expect? We couldn’t film in England!” Audiences might well have accepted and appreciated the scenes as patriotic wartime economizing. Seen in clear HD, these are fascinating shots. The high angles make it all look like Granpa’s electric railroad set, or Mister Rogers’ train to fantasy land.
Director Michael Curtiz manages to make George Tobias come off as a Frenchman. Claude Rains affects the same touch of accent he gave to Louis Renault in Casablanca, adding an eye patch for good measure. It’s rather disappointing seeing Peter Lorre restrained from showing any personality, even though he’s given atypical action scenes, such as manning a machine gun. The movie is cluttered with great actors doing little, such as Eduardo Ciannelli as the mutinous chief engineer. Way down on the cast list, unbilled, is Mark Stevens as a military aide, riding in a car in front of all those back-projected miniatures. Favorite Hans Conreid is a collaborating radio operator. Beautiful Michèle Morgan is Bogart’s lost love, suffering nobly in flashbacks and looking ravishingly glamorous while hiding out the war in a grubby / picturesque French farmhouse. We’re told that actress Morgan lost the main role in Casablanca because she held out for more money (read: wouldn’t do it for a pittance, most likely). So much for the patriotic myth.
James Agee was more than a little put out in his March 11, 1944 review:
“I feel an even sharper objection to the moment … when Humphrey Bogart, on a ship representing France, slaughters the surviving helpless crew of a wrecked plane which represents conquered Germany. Victor Francen is shocked, to be sure; but Bogart is the star, from whom the majority will accordingly accept advice on what to do with Germany.”
We are indeed meant to side with Bogie’s righteous rage. Wartime propaganda frequently encouraged audiences to vent their frustration at the enemy by offering immediate violent gratification: John Wayne would stare off-screen at the mutilated victims of Jap(anese) slaughter, and then square up accounts with a self-righteous mini-bloodbath. Agee deplored the incitement to audiences to relish any potential punishment that Germany could be made to suffer. The German fliers that Bogie executes were just doing their job, and weren’t even sneering “Heil Hitler” as they did it. Later on the movie asks us to cry for Bogie, because he has a wife and child. That’s war, I guess.
In a way these wartime propaganda excesses ought to serve notice on us liberal viewers that love Warners’ social outrage films of the earlier decade. Warner ‘issue films’ used equally combustible emotional arguments to claim a moral superiority ‘in the name of the people.’ But there is a difference. A picture like Black Legion decries bigotry and lynch mobs, but wartime patriotism apparently condones whipping up a collective lynch mob mentality. The issue seems almost beside the point now, with so much of society passively approving of torture and atrocities if committed by the correct people.
Passage To Marseille probably clicked as propaganda, as America bought wholesale its idea that fifty million Frenchmen were at heart members of the Resistance, that political unity and national pride burned in their hearts. The reality was that the politics of the country was a mess before and during the occupation. A large part of the resistance fighters were anti-Fascist Communists, people that neither De Gaulle nor the Allies wanted to give any permanent role in French political life. Nonetheless, the cliché presented is that when brave American movie star pilots were shot down, they could always count on a cognac and a kiss from a brave and sexy French girl.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Passage to Marseille has a big surprise for us — after sixty years of murky old prints with fluttering contrast, this HD scan and restoration makes Michael Curtiz’s show look like a million francs. James Wong Howe’s close-ups of the cast, especially Bogart, are art pieces begging for a frame. The cinematography must accommodate a number of contrasting environments — interior-exteriors of the English countryside, a French farm in the wind, a secret airfield dispatching a thousand planes a night to bomb Germany. And Howe’s jungle on Devil’s Island ranges from a hell-hole swamp to a farewell beach with light flickering through the foliage, lending an aura to the semi-religious sendoff given by Vladimir Sokoloff’s Grandpere. The nigh perfect HD restoration also shows the skill by which Warners wedded the live action footage with so much stock footage, and the extravagant miniature landscapes.
The Blu-ray repeats the extras of the old DVD, all of which are reproduced in standard definition. The main extra is a long-form documentary about the complicated political situation in France during the war. The experts interviewed give a concise overview, but the cutaways are often to whatever inferior quality generic war footage instead of something more relevant. As budgets shrank, DVD extra producers were too often forced to make do with very little.
The other extras form a ‘Warners Night at the Movies’ pre-show. The elaborate dramatic short I Won’t Play is a showcase for actor Dane Clark, who was sort of a less ethnic, less angry John Garfield type. An excellent musical short called Jammin’ the Blues has a progressive style, and great tunes. The great Marie Bryant sings — she would later sing “Your Red Wagon” in They Live by Night. The lead male jitterbug dancer is the very interesting Archie Savage, later both an actor and choreographer. The Weakly Reporter is a funny Chuck Jones cartoon with 101 wartime rationing jokes, and the trailer is for Uncertain Glory. The 1943 studio blooper reel is rather brief, making us wonder how many more years the practice was kept up. Offhand I bet that it stopped, along with a lot of other Warners social traditions, when the Unions found traction in the studios. The crews did without yearly parties, but were probably grateful that they no longer had to work 6 & ½ day weeks. And people wonder what unions were good for.
Passage to Marseille
Supplements: Docu on Occupied France, trailer, Warner Night at the Movies lineup, see above.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 13, 2015 (Friday the 13th!)
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson