Monday, March 01, 2010

Passage to Marseille

1944, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

Passage to Marseille offers further proof that Casablanca wasn't so much the happy accident of Hollywood legend, but rather a film undergirded by a very fine, witty script (by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch). Although this film reunites many of the players and the director with another story of conflicted wartime loyalties - the Marseillaise playing repeatedly in the background - the script, by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt, is far less subtle, and the writers struggle with the story's structural challenges, piling flashback on top of flashback. The framing story, too, is an awkward device that's far less interesting than the substance of the flashbacks. [Update June 7, 2011: David Bordwell has a fascinating piece on flashback-filled films, including a discussion of this movie; I see his point on the use of such a structure to create suspense, although I still find some parts of the film much stronger than others, unbalancing the complex architecture].

The story takes us from airfields in England to pre-war France and on to Devil's Island, of Papillon fame, where Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart) a fine French patriot has been interned for his seditious views. Curtiz creates a wonderfully sweaty atmosphere in those central sequences, tense and fetid, with superb camerawork from James Wong Howe, particularly in the sequences inside the dimly-lit barracks.

Despite the star billing, it's Claude Rains who ties the story together - as an absolutely upright man in uniform on this occasion - bringing us back through time and across the Atlantic to his own first encounter with Matrac, on board a French ship which serves as a microcosm of Free French/collaborationist views (Sidney Greenstreet playing Rains's quasi-fascist opposite number). He's superb, and the opportunity to hear that wonderful narrator's voice of his almost makes up for the film's structural awkwardness. Bogart has less to do - his character is sullen, silent, and stoic for the most part - and so it's the character actors who have to bring the thing to life. Granted free rein, Greenstreet and Lorre steal for all they're worth, and Philip Dorn also has a nice part, though the usually compelling Michèle Morgan is saddled with a thankless role as Matrac's pining wife, with few opportunities to show her range and strength.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States