PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE
This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Humphrey Bogart.
Passage to Marseille is an interesting picture in that I do not know many films that dive further and further into flashbacks, like a cinematic Russian doll. Almost amusing in its Free France flag-waving, Passage to Marseille has some good points but is almost punishingly long and now comes across as slightly silly despite its good intentions.
A plot summary is a bit hard because Passage to Marseille has up to three flashbacks, one wrapped within another. The present-day story is of reporter Manning (John Loder) who wants to do a report on the Free French Air Force stationed in England. Granted permission to look in at the secret FFAF base, he meets Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains). He gives Manning Flashback Number 1 of when he met FF pilot Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart).
Freycinet was an officer aboard the ship Ville de Nancy when the ship comes across a canoe with some men. First claiming to be French miners in Venezuela attempting to return to France to fight the Nazi regime, Freycinet learns the truth from one of the men, Renault (Philip Dorn).
We now enter Flashback Number 2. Renault and the other men are really escaped prisoners from the notorious Devil's Island in Cayenne, French Guiana. He had joined the French army illegally due to lying about his age but who became a deserter that regretted his decision. Renault feels a fire for France despite his incarceration. He eventually encounters an old former prisoner nicknamed Grandpere (Vladimir Sokoloff). He has saved his money and can get access to a canoe for an escape. Renault agrees, with four other prisoners. He also suggested as their leader Matrac.
Now we go to Flashback 3. Matrac is a crusading French journalist, condemning the Munich Pact and getting grief for it. He also loves a woman, Paula (Michelle Morgan). Matrac finds joy and love with Paula, but the collaborationist forces get him convicted for murder. He is sent to Devil's Island.
Working our way back from Flashback 3 to 2 to 1, Matrac, Grandpere and Renault leave the island along with a giant named Petit (George Tobias), a small man named Marius (Peter Lorre) and a man in the middle named Garou (Helmut Dantine). Freycinet believes they are patriots, and they eventually join forces to stop the evil Major Duval (Syndey Greenstreet) from mounting a mutiny that would send them to Vichy France. That, however, meant that Matrac would not return to Paula. Freycinet tells Manning that Matrac flies over her home to drop off notes to her and Jean, Jr. This time, however, things may not be the same.
You cannot go home again, or so the saying goes. Watching Passage to Marseille, I got that feeling as the film went on that people involved in the film were trying to echo that film. You have a good number of Casablanca players in the film (Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet, Lorre and Dantine) directed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. Certain scenes and characters echoed Casablanca, intentionally or not. Early in the film, we have a man in a trench coat and a French captain observe a plane taking off. Perhaps the wildest Casablanca/Passage to Marseille connection is when Casablanca's Renault (Rains) talked to Passage to Marseille's Renault (Dorn). As one who loves Casablanca, I never thought I would see Renault Meets Renault.
You also have Corinna Mura, the singer at Rick's Cafe Americain, singing in the same way at a French cafe where she sings what I figure is Passage to Marseille's unofficial theme, Someday I'll Meet You Again. I think even the fussy Italian from Casablanca was in Passage to Marseille too.
Someday I'll Meet You Again is no As Time Goes By, and Passage to Marseille is no Casablanca. You cannot force a love story into a war film and think that you can get the audience to connect with it by virtue of it just being there. The Matrac/Paula romance is wildly underdeveloped and takes so long in getting there that it seems almost an afterthought.
It does not help that the performances were a bit weak. I found Morgan so overwrought in her declarations of love that they seemed a case of she doth protest too much. Bogart too seemed to be in love with Paula because the script said he was, not because he thought it was true. Passage to Marseille spends so much time going from present to past to further past that we can't invest in the last story we get (the Jean/Paula romance).
Bogart, unlike almost everyone else, did not bother to sound like anything other than an American. Granted, many of the cast was foreign, but Greenstreet at least tried for a French accent. Bogart's New York sound made the idea of him being this passionate Frenchman laughable.
Not that a lot of the acting seemed up to par. There were times when I was close to chuckling seeing some of the performances. I get the idea that Passage to Marseille is close to propaganda, but the "WE LOVE FRANCE" schtick grew tiresome. So many characters go on and on about how they love France that it becomes slightly comical. Sydney Greenstreet should have twirled his mustache as the EVIL Duval, his performance as broad as his waist*. His lackey went overboard in his sycophancy to where you did not take it seriously.
As a side note, given how Duval was pro-Vichy, why neither Freycinet or Captain Malo (Victor Francen) did not just place Duval and those around him under guard makes them look like idiots. Having Hans Conreid as fellow Vichy supporter Jourdain is already silly enough; the thought that Uncle Tonoose being described in voiceover as "a treacherous youth and wildest officer" is flat-out laughable. Conried was pretty much a comic actor, so casting him in what should be a tough role in a gritty war film is too hard to accept. How can I take seriously the crazed band leader from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T being in fisticuffs with French convicts?
I give Curtiz and screenwriters Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt credit in the flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks moved well. I do wonder though if perhaps fewer flashbacks and a more straightforward story would have worked better. Credit should also go to James Wong Howe's brilliant cinematography. Certain sequences, such as Matrac's imprisonment, are almost works of art.
Other parts, though, seemed curious. Paula and Jean, Jr.'s home seemed quite pleasant and bountiful for living in occupied France. Jean, Jr. is also supposed to be five years old, which makes me wonder exactly how long Matrac was on Devil's Island.
Certainly, Passage to Marseille did what it set out to do: ennoble the Free French cause. To my mind, it went overboard in that department, but given the war I think I understand where it came from. Not exactly a Casablanca sequel, Passage to Marseille wasn't above echoing some memories of Morocco. It did not work, but in case anyone wondered, the Free French Air Force LOVED France.
*Anyone who thinks that quip is "fat-shaming" should be aware that Passage to Marseille takes potshots at Greenstreet's girth too. In voiceover, Claude Rains remarks that Duval filled the seat of honor "and amply so".