Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 18, 2010
The cast of PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES (1943)
PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES isn’t the type of film that normally sparks my interest. I have an aversion to propaganda films and I’m not particularly fond of prison break movies but I love Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre so I’ll watch them in anything. I’ve seen all the films that the two actors made together but for one reason or another I’ve managed to overlook PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES until now. Maybe it was all the lackluster reviews I read? I finally caught up with the movie last weekend and I’m happy to report that PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES surpassed my low expectations. It wasn’t the overlooked masterpiece I wanted it to be but I think it’s well worth recommending.
This unconventional WW2 drama was directed by Michael Curtiz who also directed Bogart and Lorre in Casablanca (1942). It deals with some of the same themes and reunites many of the cast members from that classic wartime romance including the dashing Claude Rains and a menacing Sydney Greenstreet. In PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES Humphrey Bogart stars as a French journalist named Matrac who finds himself imprisoned on the infamous French prison colony known as Devil’s Island when he openly accuses France’s Vichy Government of collaborating with Germany during WW2. After escaping with a bunch of patriotic criminals (Peter Lorre, George Tobias, Helmut Dantine and Philip Dorn) the convicts find themselves aboard a French ship bound for Marseille. When news of France’s surrender to Germany reaches the boat’s captain (Victor Francen) and his confidant (Claude Rains) they decide to travel to England instead of delivering their valuable cargo into the hands of the enemy. But before they can reach Britain Vichy Government supporters led by Major Duval (Sydney Greenstreet) attempt to seize the boat. Things come to an explosive head when a German plane attacks them and the convicts are forced to take up arms. Unfortunately they don’t all survive the attack but the ones that do join the free French Forces in England in an international effort to stop the Nazis and liberate France. In the middle of all this action is a romance involving Bogart’s character and the very beautiful Michèle Morgan who plays his love interest.
PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES is one of the earliest films to employ multiple flashbacks so the plot isn’t as straightforward as my description might lead you to believe. Critics have complained that the film’s narrative structure is muddled and hard to follow but I had no problem keeping track of the multiple plot lines and I actually enjoyed the nonlinear way that the writers told this rather simplistic tale. As the film jumped back and forth between the years it retained a level of suspense that I didn’t expect and I was constantly impressed by James Wong Howe’s masterful cinematography and Michael Curtiz’s smart directing choices. Conventional scenes are magnificently photographed and shot from unexpected angles. There’s no shortage of long shadows or emotional close-ups either and I often caught myself swooning over the film’s imaginative set designs. PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES has its problems and it isn’t in the same league as Curtiz’s Oscar-winning Casablanca, but it’s a beautiful looking movie with some innovative special effects and spectacular action sequences.
The film does get bogged down by repetitive dialogue that occasionally becomes grating when characters burst out in unnatural patriotic speeches that seem written by a military recruitment office. I also wish the editor had made more liberal cuts to the film but the actors do a fine job and manage to elevate the material whenever it resorts to parroting newspaper headlines and forgoes compelling storytelling. The unexpected ending is a sad commentary on the loss of life during wartime as well as a gentle reminder that freedom often comes with a heavy price. But I appreciated the way the film used unlikely antiheroes to express a message of hope during a bleak period in our collective history. And unlike countless other war films made during the same period, PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES doesn’t shy away from the fact that war often turns sensitive men into murdering monsters.
As I mentioned earlier, I love Bogart and Peter Lorre has long been one of my favorite actors so when I was watching PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES for the first time most of my attention was focused on them. Bogart is at his best during the romantic scenes with beautiful Michèle Morgan that bring out the actor’s subtlety and gentle complexities. But he’s also wonderful when he’s part of a group dynamic and his interactions with the rest of the convicts in the film give him the perfect opportunity to shine. I think Bogart works particularly well with the brilliant Peter Lorre. PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES was the fourth film that the two actors made together following The Maltese Falcon (1941), All Through the Night (1941) and Casablanca (1942). By the time they appeared in PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES they had become good friends and developed a natural repartee on screen that’s just fascinating to watch. Lorre was an expert scene-stealer and he knew exactly when to light up a cigarette or bug his eyes in order to grab your attention. But Bogart had his own way of commanding an audience and he could effortlessly keep up with Lorre’s antics just by raising an eyebrow or barking out a line. Together these two wonderful actors had a terrific chemistry on screen that makes it nearly impossible to keep your eyes off of them. You just know you’re watching something special the minute that the camera rests on Bogart and Lorre. They were two originals but they seemed to see the world through similar eyes.
In Stephen D. Youngkin’s book The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, he recounts a funny story that Lorre told columnist Ezra Goodman about the making of PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES. It seems that there were various complications on the set of the film and Warner Brothers threatened to replace Bogart with the French actor Jean Gabin after he had a heated exchange with the studio about his contract. Even cinematographer James Wong Howe threatened to walk-off the picture after various run-ins with director Michael Curtiz. Besides all of the behind-the-scenes tension Bogart and Lorre apparently had a good time together on and off the set, but they didn’t appreciate Curtiz’s severe manner so they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Unfortunately the joke that Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre played on the director didn’t go over very well with the heads at Warner Brothers who complained that the actors were wasting the studio’s time and money. The film was finished in1943 while WW2 was raging but Warner Brothers held back the release in the hope that the allies would gain another foothold in France, possibly even in Marseille, so they could capitalize on the film’s fictional location. When that never materialized the studio finally decided to release the movie in February of 1944. The critics responded to PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES with lukewarm reviews but it was a box office success for the studio.
One last bit of important trivia; While Humphrey Bogart was making PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES a very young and very lovely actress by the name of Lauren Bacall visited the set with director Howard Hawks who was planning on casting Bogart and Bacall together in his next film, To Have and Have Not (1944). The two actors had never met before and according to Bacall’s biography By Myself and Then Some they weren’t particularly impressed with each other. She wrote; “There was no clap of thunder, no lightening bolt, just a simple how-do-you-do. Bogart was slighter than I had imagined – five feet ten and a half, wearing his costume of no shape trousers, cotton shirt, and scarf around his neck. Nothing of import was said – we didn’t stay long – but he seemed a friendly man.” A few brief months later the two actors would turn heads on the set of To Have and Have Not when they began one of Hollywood’s greatest love affairs.
PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES has recently been released on DVD as part of the Warner Brothers’ new Humphrey Bogart: The Essentials Collection. It was out-of-print for awhile but I’m glad it’s become available again as part of this terrific set, which includes some of my favorite Bogart and Lorre movies including The Maltese Falcon, All Through the Night and Casablanca as well as other favorites like The Petrified Forest (1936), High Sierra (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), Key Largo (1948) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). I go out of my way to avoid accepting DVDs for review because I don’t like to feel obligated to recommend or dismiss films based on a publicist’s request, but I can honestly say that Humphrey Bogart: The Essentials Collection is one of the best DVD packages I’ve come across this year. Most of the films have been made available before but some titles such as PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES have gone out of print so it’s great to see them back in circulation again. The DVD collection also contains a lot of great extras that should appeal to Bogart fans such as a beautiful book featuring rare photos of the actor and an introduction by TCM’s own Robert Osborne as well as a fascinating documentary about the four brothers that formed Warner Brothers’ studio. But the real appeal of this collection is the movies themselves. Humphrey Bogart appeared in a lot of great films during his lifetime and many of them can be found in Humphrey Bogart: The Essentials Collection.
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