—Believe the (Poor) Hype—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Stuart Heisler
An American (Bogart) returns to Tokyo after World War II to pick up the pieces of his broken marriage and his former nightclub, the ‘Tokyo Joe.’
What I Thought
Unfortunately, almost every post-Casablanca drama that Bogart starred in got held up against the Hollywood classic by critics and then inevitably paled by comparison. That’s not all that strange. It still happens in modern cinema all the time – a major star hits it big with a film or wins an Oscar and then spends the rest of their career trying to live up to their previous work.
I like coming into films like this fresh. I get to read the history behind it. (It was the second film for Bogart’s fledgling Santana Production’s company. It was the first U.S. film to shoot in Japan after the war, even if it was only second unit footage.) I’m sixty-plus years removed from Casablanca’s initial fervor. (It’s now considered an unmatched Hollywood classic, and not the decade’s current standard of greatness.) I have the benefit of seeing Bogart’s career in the full scope, able to appreciate this film as an artist’s continued journey into cinematic independence. (Bogart’s Santana Productions was stretching and growing to lay the groundwork for a much more indie-friendly Hollywood.)
All that said, the critics are pretty much on the nose. This film is held back greatly by a script and a director that don’t seem to know what tone they want to set for their main protagonist. I think we’re supposed to root for Bogart’s returning war vet just as much as we did for Rick Blaine. At least, that’s the feeling I’m left with as we watch him fight for the love of his life and rekindle his friendship with his former nightclub partner and best friend. The problem is, early on in the film we’re introduced to Bogart as a man who dumped his wife, ditched her to die in a hostile country, and then returns to reclaim her, only to resort to blackmail before turning over a new leaf.
It’s not that Bogart can’t be appreciated while playing darker roles. Director Heisler followed up a year later with Chain Lightning for Warner Brothers, a film where Bogart’s quick to throw everyone, including his best friend, under the bus in order to satisfy his own desire to succeed. While Lightning was by no means a classic, I do think that Heisler was able to put together a film with more consistent characters and believable motivation.
So yes, there’s a nightclub. There’s a long lost love. There’s a song (‘These Foolish Things’) that repeats throughout, punctuating the love-tortured moments of Bogart’s stormy relationship. There’s an evil foreign enemy to hate. (In fact, one of the most uncomfortable aspects of the film is that there only seems to be one decent Japanese person left in Japan, and it’s not the one we’d even suspect. The rest are painted as greedy, American-hating, shady thugs.) This does indeed seem to be a real attempt to recapture the greatness of Hollywood’s greatest film and it falls flat.
I don’t think Tokyo Joe would have taken much adjustment to fix. Heisler has a talent for making his stars look good (just see the Classic Bogie moment below), so there’s a lot of little moments where this film looks like a classic, but none of the characters are portrayed with enough weight or pathos to pull off the life-and-death stakes that the plot requires us to believe.
Florence Marly plays Bogart’s ex-wife, Trina Landis. Marly does fine with what she has to work with, but her will-I-or-won’t-I relationship with Bogart is a far cry from the one he shared with Ingrid Bergman. Why would she go back to him? Why would she even consider it after all that he did to her?
Alexander Knox plays lawyer Mark Landis, current husband to Florence Marly and the only thing standing between her and Bogart’s attempts to put his marriage back together. Like Marly, Landis seems to be suffering from a severe lack of clear motivation as he continually helps his rival out for no explainable reason.
Teru Shimada was the standout of the film for me, playing Bogart’s good friend and club partner Ito. Their judo scene early in the film was a lot of fun; despite the fact that there were several prolonged moments where it was obvious that stunt doubles were being used. His arc in the film is one of the most interesting, and believable, and it makes me wish that the role had been a more integral piece of the story.
Sessue Hayakawa plays the heavy, Baron Kimura, the man attempting to undermine the Allied forces by blackmailing Bogart into working for him. Again, there’s not a lot to work with for Hayakawa as he’s a two-dimensional villain. I think painting a Japanese bad guy with such broad strokes was probably necessary for the time, but it does no favors for Tokyo Joe’s cultural longevity.
Classic Bogie Moment
Bogart. Fedora and leather jacket. Very nice. If the best thing to come out of this film was a shot like this one, it was still probably worth the effort!
The Bottom Line
The subject matter of trying to work through a post-war conflict from within the losing country has so much more potential than what’s on display here. Not a must see, but not the worst way to spend a Saturday night. Probably just for Bogart completists, though.