Your Bogie Fix:
Director: Michael Curtiz
Come slip down the rabbit hole as we have a movie that exists almost entirely in a flashback – but not just a flashback – as it’s a flashback within a flashback, which I think even delves into another flashback! Worry not, though, as director Michael Curtiz is well skilled in the art of filmmaking, and guides us easily through the multilayered story.
Claude Rains is Captain Freycinet, commander of an Allied air base that’s about to launch a bombing raid out of England. John Loder is a reporter named Manning who sits down with the Captain and hears an amazing tale of five Devil’s Island escapees who are rescued from their ocean-adrift canoe by a steam tramp that’s headed to Marseilles, France during World War II.
The steam tramp has a delegation of English and French officers onboard (including Capt. Freycinet), and mid trip, word breaks that the French have submitted to German occupation. The escaped prisoners are all patriotic Frenchmen trying to make it home to fight, and the English officers onboard would kindly appreciate it if the ship would change course for England.
Even before France’s occupation is announced, though, we know that there’s trouble afoot because French officer Major Duval, is on board, played by the wonderfully snarky Sydney Greenstreet. Duval immediately pegs the prisoners as escaped convicts from France, and when it’s discovered that the Germans are now in charge of his home country, the Major can’t get there quickly enough to show his support to the new occupiers and turn over the prisoners to the proper authorities.
What ensues is a climactic battle between the steamer and a German bomber as Freycinet and the prisoners try to keep the ship in one piece long enough to make it back to safe waters.
Bogart plays one of the five prisoners, a French reporter named Jean Matrac, who ended up on Devil’s Island after being framed for murder. Matrac saw the corruption of the French government growing long before the rest of the world did and is shipped off to the prison after printing a series of tell-all articles in his paper. His goal after the escape? Make it home to his wife, Paula, played by Michèle Morgan, who worked side by side with him in the newspaper office until it was shut down. Matrac also has a son he’s never met, who we meet before the flashback, anxiously waiting for a letter from his father to be dropped from a bomber after a raid.
Unlike the other four convicts who escaped Devil’s Island with him, Matrac is unsure of his allegiance to his former country. Consumed with bitterness and revenge, we’re not sure where his allegiances lie until he’s forced to make a choice and fight.
Joining Bogart as another one of the convicts is Peter Lorre as Marius, in what I found to be one of his most likable roles (despite the fact that he’s a convicted felon!). Perhaps the biggest highlight of the movie is getting to see Bogart and Lorre team up against a German bomber while wielding two on-deck machine guns. Watching them offer friendly waves back and forth across deck as they take shots, and avoid shots, was great fun. Bogie and Lorre – action heroes! Believe it or not.
The entire movie is said to be a slightly missed attempt at recreating the magic that was Casablanca, as so many of the cast and crew return from that movie including director, writer, composer, producer, and at least five other actors. Perhaps I’m far enough removed from the era, but I thought that my love for Casablanca only enhanced my enjoyment of this film. The story is much more action oriented, and it comes off as more of a prison escape movie rather than a war romance.
I’ve only done limited research, but I wonder how much the solitary confinement scenes from Passage influenced the ones in Papillon. It would make a fun double feature!
Michael Curtiz directed a lot films in his long and prolific career, and while not all of them were gems, his classics outweigh his bombs. Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, Angels with Dirty Faces, White Christmas, We’re No Angels, etc. Curtiz had the skills to make amazing films. Just the way the multiple flashbacks are handled without confusion shows a director with a fine hand at storytelling without losing an audience.
Bogart plays dark and brooding like no other. If you like his action oriented roles, this will satisfy you greatly. The interrogation scene with Freycinet and the prisoners is especially well acted by Bogart as he directs the other men with nothing more than subtle head nods. The man knew how to do a lot with just a little.
Bogart, Rains, Lorre, and Greenstreet together? Fantastic. While none of them have the depth of character that they had in Casablanca, this was a fun film to assemble them for again. Rains especially nails his role during a funeral in the final moments of the movie.
Even catching sight of the wires on one of the bomber miniatures doesn’t bother me. I love the special effects from the classic years of Hollywood. Water tanks and boats built on set. Miniature bombers. Matte back drops. I’ll take this stuff over CGI any day.
While Michèle Morgan doesn’t get quite as juicy of a role as Ingrid Bergman did, she still plays great against Bogart.
Classic Bogie Moment
No words. Just a pic this time. C’mon, we know Bogie’s good with a gun, but how classic is this?
The Bottom Line
I loved this movie. It’s not the best-of-the-best from Bogart’s collection, but it’s in the top half for sure. I get such a charge out of seeing Bogart and Lorre together, especially when they’re on the same side. That machine gun scene on the boat is worth the price of admission in itself. Peter Lorre is the man!
According to IMDB, this is the movie where Bogart met Bacall! She wasn’t in the movie, but was on set to test her chemistry against Bogart’s for a little movie called To Have and Have Not.