Humphrey Bogart’s name appears above the title in director, Michael Curtiz’s Passage to Marseille (1944); a badly bungled bit of wartime propaganda that underutilized its star and makes mincemeat of the flashback within a flashback within yet another flashback scenario, clumsily scripted by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt (very loosely based on Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s novel, Sans Patrie); all about a motley crew of prisoner escapees from French Guiana’s penal colony on Devil’s Island; Bogart and his cohorts seconded to the cause of defending a France presently beleaguered by the Nazis. Even as wartime propaganda, Passage to Marseille is pure pulp; the studio transparently hoping to capitalize on the success of Casablanca (1942) by reuniting virtually all of the creative team working both in front of and behind the camera responsible for its success. There is even a cameo for guitar-strumming chanteuse, Corinna Mura, once again serenading patrons at an outdoor café with her sad-eyed ballads. But if anything, Passage to Marseille proves there was no going back for Bogart, who had broken the mold of his seemingly ensconced and trademarked reputation on the Warner lot as one of their most popular gangster-land thugs from the infamous ‘murderer’s row’, destined to get killed in the third reel; Bogart’s reprieve and elevation in status as a romantic leading man in Casablanca, coupled with his feature debut opposite Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (also released in 1944) illustrating the actor’s truer potential as a profit center for the studio.
Passage to Marseille is about as muddled as war stories get; the Robinson/Moffitt screenplay taking far too long to introduce us to Bogart’s Jean Matrac; an extraordinary figure, at least, so Claude Rains’ patch-eyed Capt. Freycinet informs news reporter, Manning (John Loder); the pair meeting at a clandestine airbase quietly tucked away in the countryside. Idiotically, Bogart is given no dialogue of merit to distinguish himself or affirm his character’s remarkable attributes. He grumbles – a lot – and flashes us interminably panged expressions of a wounded soul, periodically comforted by his perpetually teary-eyed wife, Paula (Michèle Morgan, utterly wasted). There is also a battle aboard the Ville de Nancy, the frigate captained by the benevolent Patain Malo (Victor Francen) carrying valuable ore the Nazis would like to get their hands on, under the auspices of stern Maj. Duval (Sidney Greenstreet, looking ridiculous in his curled moustache). Bogart knows how to use a gun. He also knows how to look menacing. But it is all for not, as our story basically unravels Matrac’s fractured past; Bogart’s solitary man of action, the one innocent among many cohorts exiled to Devil’s Island; oversized, George Tobias, ironically named ‘Petit’, sentenced for murdering a corrupt official after his ancestral farmlands were misappropriated by the provisional government; Helmut Dantine (Garou, whom we are told killed a wayward lover with an axe), Philip Dorn (Renault, his crime never fully disclosed) and Peter Lorre (as loveable Parisian pickpocket, Marius). Harsh legal system in France – pickpockets relegated to the sweaty swamps to build a road of death along this forgotten stretch in the hellish and malaria-infested jungle terrain.
In one of the many flashbacks, we see Bogart’s Matrac, the publisher of a small independent Paris newspaper, leading the charge against Marshal Philippe Pétain, whose policies of appeasement have paved the way for an armistice with the Axis powers, allowing Hitler’s armies to peacefully march in and occupy France. Matrac’s offices are pillaged; the pro-Nazi looters tearing the place apart as Matrac and his girlfriend, Paula helplessly look on. Given their gripe is with Matrac in particular, it is positively benign and silly these looters barely assault him, but rather allow for his escape from the deluge; the local authorities, more sympathetic to Vichy, turning a blind eye to the chaos. Paula convinces Matrac to live obscurely in the countryside. Without much prodding, he proposes marriage and the two are, in fact, wed in a private ceremony. Alas, marital bliss is not to be as Paula, buying flowers in the market square, inadvertently catches sight of a newspaper article, accusing Matrac of the destruction in which a co-worker was killed. It is an obvious frame up. But Paula and Matrac go on the lam anyway; Matrac eventually apprehended, brought to trial and sentenced to fifteen years on Devil’s Island.
There, he befriends the aforementioned prisoners and quickly establishes himself as their leader and voice of integrity. The men are also befriended by an elderly ex-con, Grandpere (Vladimir Sokoloff), who has spent the last several years catching and selling rare butterflies to the tourist trade, hoping to save up enough money to pay for a return passage to his beloved France. Instead, and preposterously, Grandpere chooses to bestow this large endowment on Matrac and his cohorts, but only if they rejoin the Free French under Charles de Gaulle and fight for France’s liberation from the Nazi stronghold. Grandpere makes everyone swear an oath of allegiance to France; all but Matrac repeating after the old man. In the flimsiest of canoes, Matrac, Marius, Garou, Petit and Renault set out for the open waters; rescued from certain death by the Ville de Nancy after being adrift for twenty-one days without food; five without fresh drinking water. Capt. Malo is empathetic. But Duval sees through the fake story Renault has concocted to prevent their discovery; that they are the survivors of a German U-boat attack. What is more, Duval is determined to see these men hanged upon their return to France. Also among the Ville de Nancy’s crew are a corrupt chief engineer (Edward Ciannelli) and even more devious wireless operator (Hans Conried) who will later betray their coordinates to the Germans, before being bludgeoned to death by Petit, but after Malo has already veered off course, steering his ship towards the relative safety of England to escape capture.
The Ville de Nancy is discovered by a German bomber. In the resulting aerial confrontation, Matrac distinguishes himself by downing the plane, though only after many lives aboard the Ville de Nancy are lost, including a mess boy (William Roy), earlier, having formed a pubescent fraternal bond with Matrac; now comforted, as he expires in Matrac’s arms, declaring ‘vive la France’. The boy’s patriotism inspires Matrac to reconsider his own cynicism. He assassinates the bomber’s survivors; then, pledges himself wholeheartedly to the eradication of the Nazi stronghold in France. We regress to the present; to the hidden air base where Freycinet and Manning are awaiting their own bombers to return from another harrowing mission. In retrospect, the creation of this hidden airfield has all the trick-trappings of a bit of classic James Bond adventure-escapism; the initial bucolic landscape seen in longshot, a clever miniature, expertly photographed by cinematographer extraordinaire, James Wong Howe with ingenious lap dissolves to the full-scale set, complete with audio-animatronic cows, plows, and, farmhands. By day, it all looks benignly agrarian. Under the cover of night, however, farmhouses are transformed into military installations; nearby barns folding open to improbably reveal themselves as airplane hangars, and, haystacks becoming radar stations; the fences between them, mere props to conceal the runways. Manning is perhaps hoping to interview Matrac upon his return. Unhappy circumstance for all, Matrac has been killed by a sniper’s bullet; his body returned to the base by Renault; thereafter, laid to rest on a windswept cliff overlooking the sea; Freycinet reading Matrac’s final letter to his wife and child as the benediction over his grave while a chorus of La Marseillaise patriotically fills the sound field and the end credits fade to black.
Passage to Marseille is one of the weakest pictures in Michael Curtiz’s formidable canon of masterworks; a minor blemish for Bogart too, whose career did not sustain any lasting damage from participation in this project. Still, it is fairly laughable and mostly indigestible to even try and buy into the transparently American Bogart, mercifully not even making an attempt at a French accent, though nevertheless miscast as a Frenchman – and no less – one of its slightly tarnished patriots. Arguably, the rest of Bogie’s cohorts can pass on their varied accents; all except Helmut Dantine, whose Austrian lineage seems an ill-fit as Garou. Owing to his accent, Dantine’s career would suffer perennial typecasting as the wicked, doomed Nazi: to misquote Peter Lorre’s Ugarte from Casablanca – “poor devil!” Passage to Marseille has the timely wartime patina and appeal of Casablanca, but with none of its charm. Without the accomplishments of the Epstein brothers, whose witty dialogue made Casablanca such a memorable outing, Passage to Marseille succumbs to the most perfunctory form of screenwriting; dialogue designed merely to link up plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’ and then ‘C’ and so on; the essential-ness of this connective tissue occasionally stumbling about in the dark with nothing more meaningful to contribute or even suggest. Ironically, the best bits of exposition are given to Vladimir Sokoloff’s Grandpere; wholly believable as the ‘old careworn’ surrendering his dreams of ever seeing a liberated France. Claude Rains’ reading of Matrac’s epitaph also carries a formidable conviction, elsewhere denied in this movie. But even Rains is wasted elsewhere in the plot. But the epic misfire made by Robinson and Moffitt; to have rested on their laurels, merely contented to have most of Casablanca’s cast reunited to recite their lines; erroneously assuming it really does not matter what is said so long as there is star power behind the dialogue. Big mistake. Huge!
I suppose my biggest beef with Passage to Marseille is it squanders so many great talents in a series of largely forgettable and extremely ill-favored vignettes, loosely strung together by the gimmicky flashback within two other flashbacks conceived by Messers Robinson and Moffitt to tell this tale. Tragically, we are never entirely certain whose story is being told. Is it Matrac’s; as Bogie’s name above the title would suggest? Well, no – not entirely. Is it Capt. Freycinet’s recollections we ought to invest in? Again, not entirely – since a good deal of Freycinet’s retelling of Matrac’s life is based upon speculations made with a remarkable clairvoyance. But even the ‘real story’ – the rise of Free French resistance – gets submarined by Curtiz’s awkward desire to inveigle the audience with bits of a more personalized human saga never coming across as even remotely relatable.
Bogie’s Matrac is a fraudulent cardboard cutout of the atypical French patriot sheathed in American ideals. All we know of him is pieced together from the most superficial of snap shots and sound bites: a life torn asunder by the war and Matrac’s presumably altruistic political convictions. The picture’s slant is heavy-handed on flag-waving nationalism but wafer-thin on the reasons why Matrac feels as deeply as he does, or rather, suffers his miraculous conversion from rank cynic to devoted partisan. Bogie might have had an inkling of support from co-star, Michèle Morgan – undeniably attractive, and seemingly a very fine actress to boot – except that the screenplay does everything to minimize Morgan’s presence in the movie; briefly introduced at the onset as devoted wife and mother, then all but jettisons her from the plot thereafter – save an even more fleeting flashback to illustrate her quickie marriage to Matrac before being forced into a tearful courtroom goodbye as her hubby is exiled to a fate worse than death on Devil’s Island.
None of this works, because at just under 2 hrs., there is not enough time to get to the particulars in this densely packed but even more dully conceived war story with a real downer of an ending. Generally speaking, a picture is in trouble when its’ finale calls for the star to die – worse still, die off camera; and worst of all – without one last glimpse of heroism to remind the audience what an epic loss has occurred, made to feel it in the gut and take it to heart. But Bogie’s presence in Passage to Marseille is so slight – he does not arrive on the scene in any concrete form beyond a doleful close-up until nearly twenty minutes into the plot, and thereafter makes the least of what scant dialogue he has been afforded – that his absence at the end of the picture is more than burgeoning with a sense of worn-out ennui – excruciatingly inevitable and marginally justified.
There is too much past regression going on and not enough screen time devoted to the present to whet our appetites for an investment in what happens to these characters now. Indeed, only the first six and last five minutes of the plot take place in the ‘then’ present; the foregrounding of a nation at war overshadowed by too lengthy and lumbering a backstory, meant to enrich our understanding of how far each of these characters has come in their social development, both individually and as a team working towards the liberation of France. But since we are never given any moments illustrating the endurance of this camaraderie in the present, the past and its faded memories is rendered moot by comparison. The past that is shown is episodically represented at best; glimpses of a daring escape, ruptured romantic entanglements; a company of men drawn together from disparate backgrounds for the common good. There is no sweep, scope or investment to be made and/or gleaned from any of these tidbits; the old Warner Bros. economy – trademarked, fast-paced/ripped from the headlines storytelling – a tad too economically stretched out herein, depriving the audience of consistency without any lasting acceptance, embracement or cherishing of these characters. In the final analysis, Passage to Marseille fails to rise above the mediocrity of its plodding plot. With so many high-profile WB alumni toiling to make it (the likes of Curtiz to direct, Hal B. Wallis to produce, Max Steiner to write the score, but especially, Bogart to star), so much more was expected from this exercise.
The same cannot be said of the Warner Archive’s Blu-ray incarnation. While I continue to be disappointed by the Archive’s choice in titles pushed to the forefront for such meticulous remastering efforts (honestly, by now we should have had the debut of The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and To Have and Have Not from the Bogart canon) I certainly cannot argue with the results on tap: Passage to Marseille sparkles with a beguiling renewal of James Wong Howe’s sumptuous B&W cinematography. True confession: I did not hold out much hope for this presentation: the old DVD riddled in age-related anomalies; severe gate weave, a lot of torn sprockets and tears across the image itself, dirt, scratches and you name it, compounded by lower than anticipated contrast levels and a modicum of digitized grit and shimmering of fine details. Bottom line: I thought this one was a goner. My mistake.
This Blu-ray is exquisite in all regards, eradicating virtually all of the aforementioned shortcomings and anomalies. Grain structure is perfect, the image stable, clean and richly saturated with velvety black levels. What it must have cost the studio to go back and remaster this deep catalog title is considerable. All the more reason to question their executive logic in releasing Passage to Marseille ahead of some of the other Bogie classics I have mentioned, particularly if sales figures are the only deciding factor in what gets and does not get the royal treatment. Likewise, the audio has been given a renewal in DTS mono – crisp, clean and without the marginal hiss and pop present on the DVD.
I am going to champion this disc as a must have, mainly to back Warner Bros.’ continued efforts to provide us with ‘perfect picture and sound’ on their vast, and as yet untapped, storehouse of deep catalog MIA in 1080p. How any of this is possible at a price point of under $20 per unit is beyond me; but it nevertheless proves what I have suspected all along: that good – nee great work – can be done on a budget to satisfy critics and film lovers alike, and still make the enterprise feasible for those many more movies yet to see such a glorious resurrection on Blu-ray. I have my list of titles that ought to be in the works, but will keep it to myself this time around. So, to Warner’s I simply have but one request. More, please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+ (and then some!)