Tuesday 8 November 2011

Passage to Marseilles (1944)

PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES is an American thriller that was directed by Michael Curtiz and released by Warner Brothers in March 1944.  It stars Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.  It tells the story of how a pilot escapes imprisonment on Devil's Island and joins the Free French forces in England.

Another cash-in, this time of CASABLANCA using a lot of the same personnel.  One thing I haven't mentioned in my reviews of all these Warner Bros WW2 movies is the Hollywood studio system which was very much in operation at the time.  Essentially what this means is that the major Hollywood studios operated a vertically integrated business model whereby they owned the means of production, the means of distribution and the means of exhibition.  That is to say, the studios made the films, they distributed the films to cinemas and they owned or controlled the cinemas in which the films were exhibited.  A very cosy system for the major studios and it kept things a tightly closed shop for quite a while.

The bit of particular interest in terms of the films I've been writing about over the past couple of days is the studio itself.  Each studio, in this case Warner Bros, had certain stars, director and writers under exclusive contract to work only for that studio and the studio bosses (all those names you've read about - Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and so) would decree which stars would appear in which picture.  When a studio had a major hit they would often repeat the formula, with one or two slight changes to cast, plot and setting, to try to repeat the success.  Thus Warner's CASABLANCA (1941), directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre, begat, among others, PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES, also directed by Michael Curtiz and also starring Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre.

Warner Bros were practically begging comparisons with CASABLANCA by using shots like this
Cynical, you might say, but business is business.  Mayer, Warner, Goldwyn and the rest may have cared about the quality of their product but they were under no illusions about whether they were trying to create art or trying to make a profit.  In their defence, while some of the studios' output was formulaic, they had to produce far more films in those days than they do now and, it has to be said, with far less reliance on remakes and sequels.

Humphrey Bogart and Michele Morgan: they'll always have Paris too
What of the film itself?  Well I enjoyed it actually.  It's notorious for at one point having a flashback within a flashback within a flashback but that's a kind of trainspotter-ish thing to remark on because while you're watching it passes by without incident.  There's some escapology, some romance (with Michele Morgan instead of Ingrid Bergman) and some great stuff on board ship with Sydney Greenstreet as a vile collaborateur.  It isn't as good as its forebear of course but why would it be?  What the studios failed to realise was that classic films achieve their classic status through a thousand small things, including luck or coincidence, coming together at the right time, rather than through contrivance.

Film anorak notes

  • Perc Westmore with the makeup again.  Since I mentioned him yesterday I read a small piece about him which said that he was just one of an enormous Westmore clan that had moved from England to Hollywood and pretty much come to dominate the make-up side of the movie business, at various studios.
  • Apparently Jay Silverheels - best known as Tonto to Clayton Moore's Lone Ranger in the TV serial - is an extra in the boat scenes but I can't say I spotted him.
  • Helmut Dantine, an extremely good looking Austrian actor in Hollywood, plays one of Bogey's fellow escapees.  Dantine had a wildly varied career, ranging from King Vidor's stab at WAR & PEACE [1956] to Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA [1974] and THE KILLER ELITE [1975].

Helmut Dantine (L) and Peter Lorre (R).  Also a beautiful example of James Wong Howe's camerawork.
  • The cinematographer was James Wong Howe, one of the great names of his profession.

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