Tokyo Joe – 1949

Tokyo Joe Poster

My Review

—Believe the (Poor) Hype— 

Your Bogie Film Fix:

2 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Stuart Heisler

The Lowdown

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.

The Cast

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!

Tokyo Joe Bogart

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.

Chain Lightning – 1950

Chain Lightning Poster

My Review

—Deserves a Better Reputation— 

Your Bogie Film Fix:

3 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Stuart Heisler

The Lowdown

Veteran war pilot Matt Brennan (Humphrey Bogart) returns home to take a job as a test pilot and ends up working with/for an old war acquaintance (Richard Whorf) who happens to be dating Brennan’s wartime ex-girlfriend (Eleanor Parker).

What I Thought

A lot of the things that I didn’t like about China Clipper are fixed up in Chain Lightning.  While both movies deal with pushing the boundaries of aviation, China Clipper peters out about halfway through when all character development seems to stall, while Chain Lightning is able to keep the stakes high right up to the very end.

Watching on TCM, I was a little puzzled as to why Robert Osborne lent so much credibility to the notion that this film is one of many attempts to recapture Casablanca’s magic.  Yes, Bogart once again crosses paths with an old flame who’s now with a new man . . . but for me, that’s where the similarities stop.

Lt. Col. Matt Brennan is not Rick Blaine.  Not by a long shot.  Whereas Blaine lives by his own code of loyalty, Brennan is a bit more of a maverick, willing to double cross the man who gave him a job in order to gain a little fame, money, and possibly the heart of his wartime gal.  Brennan’s not a bad guy, he’s just in a darker place than Blaine is when their respective films start.  Add to the fact that there’s no looming Nazi threat – no real antagonist at all, other than Bogart’s own flawed personality – and I was left with a much different feeling watching this film than Casablanca.

Chain Lightning is by no means a classic, but it’s a solid drama that does an adequate job of building tension all the way to the end.  It’s entirely watchable, and the cast hits all the right notes throughout.  The high-tech jet plane technology gimmick feels dated, and Director Heisler gets a little heavy handed with the “Judas” reference towards Bogart when he undercut’s Whorf’s agenda, but it doesn’t ever ring false.  Bogart’s betrayal of Whorf leads us to the very believable ending where Brennan makes a risky choice in order to make amends for his earlier shortcomings.

In the end, it’s probably not a must see for most fans, but Chain Lightning is made well enough for most Bogart and Classic Hollywood fans to enjoy.  I would probably compare it to a film like Dead Reckoning in the fact that it’s a flawed picture with a lot of really good performances.

The Bogart Factor

Matthew Brennan is a slightly different spin on Bogart’s catalog of “expatriate loners” that pop up from time to time.  When he’s back in the states, Brennan is left a bitter and lost after the war is over.  His motives are superficial and it’s not until the end that he’s willing to risk himself for more than a payoff or a woman.

If anyone is good at being bitter – it’s Bogart.  He plays the role with ease and believability, and getting to see him use the song Bless’em All to torture Eleanor Parker once they’re reunited is an especially fun bit of needling to watch.

There’s nothing groundbreaking here, as Bogart doesn’t have to stretch too far to play a character that’s a composite of a lot of his previous roles, but he’s good at what he does, and he’s a big part of why the dramatic tension works in the film.

The Cast

Eleanor Parker plays Joan “Jo” Holloway, Brennan’s ex-girlfriend that comes between the veteran pilot and his friend/coworker.  While the part was underwritten, what I did enjoy was the fact that Parker didn’t spend a lot of time pining over which man to pick.  It was pretty clear that she was ready to go back to Bogart, despite his arrogance and flaws.

Richard Whorf plays Carl Troxell, the aviation designer, old war acquaintance, and third corner to the love triangle between Parker and Bogart.  I thought Whorf made a strong showing here and did an especially fine job at the end when he puts his life on the line in a race against Bogart to prove which plane is better fit for the military.

Raymond Massey is Leland Willis, the man in charge of the aviation company that’s building the planes that Whorf designs and Bogart flies.  He’s about as close to a bad guy as we get in the film, and even then his choices are motivated enough in reality to be believable.  It’s always fun to see Massey turn up in a film.

Classic Bogie Moment

This was an easy one the moment I saw the scene.  Bogart was always great at playing the charming cad.  While quite a few of the characters in his filmography were “bad” guys, it’s hard to blame the women who end up with him because he was always able to play off his ugly side with an easy going humor.  In my “classic” moment for this post, I give you the scene where Bogart’s Brennan and Parker’s Jo are getting reacquainted on a car ride as they carefully broach the topic of why they lost touch after the war:

Bogart:  I wrote you a couple of times . . . 

Parker:  I never got them . . . 

Bogart:  (PLAYFULLY) I never sent them . . .

Did he really write?  I don’t know.  I’m guessing he didn’t, but he was so sincere when they almost got married earlier in the film, so maybe there’s a chance that he did.  It’s the thought that counts, right?  It’s the first moment that I think he’s really planting a seed in Parker that he might not be a lost cause.

The Bottom Line

It’s a decent drama, and definitely not as bad as a lot of the user and critic reviews would lead you to believe.