Monthly Archives: October 2010

Wartime Bogart Part III: Passage to Marseille

It has been a long time since I posted on Wartime Bogart, and sadly, my small series will end here (Action in the North Atlantic was a disappointing advertisement for the US Navy, and not worth much comment). Passage to Marseille is a magnificent, flawed, and colourful film that raises the problem of patriotism when you think your own country is a coward. The Free French, a movement you don’t often see on-screen, are the heroes of Bogart’s second-last wartime picture. If political Hollywood movies have shown us one thing, it is that every cause has to be “personalized” for the hero.

More on that later. First, I should give a little synopsis of Passage to Marseille. Capitaine Freycinet (Claude Rains) presides over a Free French airbase tucked into the green pastures of rural England. He tells a curious war journalist about the history of the enigmatic Jean Matrac (Bogart), one of the pilots. Matrac was an anti-appeasement journalist in France who is framed for murder. His wife Paula (Michèle Morgan, less successful in America than in native France) vows she will wait for his release from Devil’s Island in Guiana. There he meets the other convicts: Marius (Peter Lorre), Renault (Philip Dorn), Petit (George Tobias), and Garou (Helmut Dantine), who plan an escape to the motherland. They are aided by butterfly catcher Grandpère, played by Vladimir Sokoloff, who later appeared in The Magnificent Seven (1960) as the wise old peasant.

Screenwriters Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt structure the unfolding back stories around the character’s own memories. Passage to Marseilles is like a Russian doll, doing to flashbacks what Inception does to dreams. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, all treated by director Michael Curtiz’s gift at voiceover and storytelling.

The narrative gets really interesting when the escaped convicts are picked up by Ville de Nancy, a French ship en route to Marseille. The Maginot Line is about to be outflanked by the Germans, dividing the ship’s crew between Vichy sympathizers and Free French. Representing the fascism Matrac so despises is the corpulent Sydney Greenstreet – a familiar Bogie adversary – as Major Duval. Rains’ Freycinet is not so poor and not so corrupt: he wants to help to patriotic convicts join the fight against Hitler.

Matrac also wants to return to his wife, and it is here that the distinctions between “motherland” and woman are blurred. While he cannot reunite with either France or Paula, he can fly over both, leaving letters after each bombing raid on Germany. There are echoes of the “outlaw hero” here, a man who overcomes disgust in his nation’s politics to fight for the ideal of the nation itself. Robert Ray describes the reconciliation between individual and community in his essay The Thematic Paradigm:

The reconciliatory pattern found its most typical incarnation […]  in one particular narrative: the story of the private man attempting to keep from being drawn into action on any but his own terms. In this story, the reluctant hero’s ultimate willingness to help the community satisfied the official values. But by portraying this aid as demanding only a temporary involvement, the story preserved the values of individualism as well.

When the anti-fascist Captain Malo turns the ship from Marseilles after the fall of Paris, Matrac is initially dismayed: he wants nothing more than return to Paula and his young son. However, as the ship journeys on to the UK he grows committed to fighting until Hitler is defeated and he can come home a free man. Casablanca illustrated this dichotomy more clearly, and Ray holds Curtiz’s previous effort as the ultimate example of the “reluctant American”.

In fact this film feels even more like a Casablanca reunion than Across the Pacific felt like a Maltese Falcon reunion. Most of the same players are here: Bogart, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Dantine, composer Max Steiner, writer Casey Robinson, Curtiz, and even producer Hal B. Wallis. It is typical of the assembly line model of filmmaking, when contracted talent would churn out picture after picture for a studio. Casablanca has often been called an “accidental hit” because it was one of many wartime adventure films Warner Bros. was producing.


And yet Passage to Marseilles is still well worth watching. Curtiz can guide you through a hellish night raid on German factories, a mutiny and counter mutiny on the Ville de Nancy, and a ship vs. plane duel involving a particularly devastating Focke Wulf 200. Claude Rains always seems to get the best lines: he tells Manning that Matrac “still fights. The bombs that are dropping tonight are editorials the Germans will understand.” Perhaps most impressive in the film’s mournful and touching conclusion, consisting (spoiler alert) of Matrac’s last letter to his wife and son, also read by Rains. A dedication to those who died for freedom, it is moving and dignified enough to be part of a Remembrance Day’s celebration. After the madcap fun of All Through the Night, it is fitting to end on a solemn note, pulling the celluloid out of the realm of Indiana Jones fantasy and into the real world of mourning and sacrifice.


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Some Words on a Short Dark Familiar…

As the closing credits of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger rolled (white Windsor Light Condensed on black, as always) I pondered over what the previous 90 minutes signified in the Woody Allen catalogue. It was a watchable  film, the forty-first addition to forty-five years of filmmaking. But it is not Allen at his best or moderate best. Tall Dark Stranger takes familiar stories played out in the Woodman’s other work, introducing itself with Shakespeare’s line about life being full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That observation could also be applied to Allen’s recent output.

Everyone knows Woody Allen writes about himself, and, to a large extent, for himself. Odd is how of late he has been writing scripts about his other scripts. He paired an wealthy older man (Anthony Hopkins) with a prostitute with a heart of gold (Lucy Punch) as he did in Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Mighty Aphrodite (1996). He shows the breakup of a marriage between a washed-up writer (Josh Brolin) and fed-up wife (Naomi Watts), a formula applied to Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis in Celebrity (1998) and to himself and Mia Farrow (ah, the days of Farrow-Allen!) in Husbands and Wives (1991). Hopkin’s wife Gemma Jones experiences supernatural communication with the dead; this happened to Mia Farrow in Alice (1990) and Scarlett Johansson in Scoop (2006). Allen can always make the ordinary watchable, but even the help of monstrously talented casts cannot cover up this act of recycling.

There is no doubt that Allen is still brilliant, still industrious, and still more than capable at crafting entertainment. How he can write  more one-liners is, at this point, beyond comprehension. But easier to spot than a genius is a lazy genius. I can imagine him dashing off 10 pages of dialogue in between swallowing Advils, half-distracted by a migraine and a fear of the abyss. Roger Ebert said Tall Dark Stranger was “every frame an Allen film, but it isn’t very much more.” It is definitely funny, definitely ironic, and definitely low on faith in human interaction. The film does not so much conclude as end with a shrug, narrator Zak Orth reminding us of Shakespeare’s line about life being full of sound and…what? Nothing?

Has Allen said all he has to say? If he wanted his career to have an arc, he probably should have stopped after Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). That sublime combination of comedy and drama would have been a perfect swan song to his humour and the clouds of despair at the universe that hang over his work. It would have shown a level of maturity from the man who made Bananas and Sleeper, a cinematic graduation from the “earlier funny ones” to complex morality tales like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), that smacked not a little of Bergman. However, Allen went on to write and direct a wildly inconsistent batch of films in the 1990s. Critics stopped looking too hard for glimmers of the old Allen after the box office failure of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), which is actually not that bad (yet hugely over-budgeted at $33 million; Allen shot the successful Vicky Christina Barcelona for fifteen).

It is hard to call all of post-80s Allen lighthearted – Matchpoint and Shadows and Fog are as dark as he gets – but his work has definitely become airier. Like Tarantino at his worst, Allen can still flourish endless clever premises (Small Time Crooks, Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending) and conjure one liners on the spot. At Cannes he even delivered another funny quip when asked what he felt about mortality: “My relationship to death remains the same. I’m strongly against it.” But he cannot do now what he did in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): take a meta-fictional story full of ironic postmodernism and make it genuine. It was a love story between poor Cecilia and dashing (yet fictional) Tom Baxter, and a love story between Allen and cinema. Nothing since has been so heartfelt and hilarious. To his credit, Hollywood Ending and Small Time Crooks were amusing (if morally vacuous) comedies. Allen pulls surprising and sometimes implausible endings to leave his characters happy, or the majority  in decent spirits. Deus ex machina was never so obvious as the helicopter that lands in front of Mira Sorvino at the end of Mighty Aphrodite, uniting the unlucky heroine with her future soulmate.

Older but none the wiser?

These forced conclusions come off as subversive from Allen, who has repeatedly told us how deluded and miserable we all are. According to Alfie Singer we should be happy to be miserable. In hindsight it was the most consoling thought Allen ever shared with us. His films are less concerned with puzzling out a moral philosophy than throwing rich attractive people into each other’s lives and beds.  A.O. Scott of the New York Times has called his recent work “timid and defensive”, glazed with the “fussed-over air of a hobbyist’s playthings”.  Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail extends the comparison to

an aging cabinet maker still blessed with craft but grown erratic in design…At best, the little drawers, the ones marked Comedy and Tragedy and Love and Death, pull out smoothly and the whole thing looks relatively attractive and works quite functionally – think Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. At worst, the conception degenerates into a contraption of ill-fitting pieces and rusty old hinges –Scoop is the obvious example.

Though it is true that Allen has become less audience-friendly, the decline has not been steady. Match Point was one of his best dramas and Vicky-Christina Barcelona (2008), while overrated, glimmered with hope for a Woody renaissance. The shift to Europe, or a warm, upper-middle class version of Europe, might freshen his narratives. But he will probably not direct another Manhattan (1979). He might not even make another Radio Days (1987).

Woody had a lot to say about relationships, sex, anxiety, the human condition, and self-delusion. He could take the best of what European artists were saying – be it Fellini, Bergman, or Dostoyevsky – and translate their ideas for North American intellectuals. New York, once a beautiful character unto itself, became a ubiquitous backdrop to his rushed plots. Unfortunately, Allen’s settings now refuse to be contemporary, as if he is condensing his fear of aging onto postcard locales in Barcelona and Manhattan. Most recently, his “London” is sunny window dressing for Hopkins, Jones, Brolin, Watts, and others to struggle with underwritten characters.

Although Tall Dark Stranger has a lot of different Allen elements, this does not make for a triumphant celebration. It is not like Shakespeare waving goodbye in The Tempest, but more a nod of recognition. Woody is still here, but lately showing up cannot count for 80%.

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A Few Words on the Tall Dark Stranger…

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is a ‘middle’ Woody Allen film, better than Hollywood Ending but worse than The Purple Rose of Cairo. The meandering plot contains all of the unhappy marriages, May-December romances, illicit affairs, moral failings, and reversals of fate that are the meat and potatoes of Allen’s stories. It’s like he condensed Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the supernatural window-dressing of Alice and dropped these elements onto the set of Match Point – or a few blocks down to the townhouses of the London upper middle class.

Since he is second to none at crafting talky dramedies and because he is backed by a casually brilliant cast (one of countless dream teams Allen can summon on the spot), this fable of love gained, lost, and almost gained is fluffy, enjoyable, and occasionally poignant. There is not so much a dramatic arc as a handful of short films weaving across each other. Youth-obsessed Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) drops his wife Helena for being ‘too old’ and gets a bachelor pad, a tan, and a prostitute girlfriend (Lucy Punch, who you may remember as Darla from Dinner For Schmucks). Helena (Gemma Jones) begins seeing a fortune-teller for advice while her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) tires of her husband Roy (Josh Brolin). Brolin’s failed writer waits for a verdict from his publisher while spying on his alluring neighbour Dia, played by the alluring Freida Pinto. Sally is also distracted: her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas) may or may not want to have an affair with her.

Allen’s jabbing wit comes through these familiar tales, bookended by Zack Orth’s narration. When Helena falls for Jonathan (thespian Roger Ashton-Griffiths), she has to first overcome the memory of his wife. “She’s deceased,” she tells her daughter with a glass of whisky in her hand, “They’re always the stiffest competition, no pun intended.” When a friend supposedly dies, Roy steals his brilliant manuscript, only to discover the friend is recovering from a coma. These moments of irony are enough to make Tall Dark Stranger worth seeing, but it is clearly a film for an Allen devotee.

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