Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Across the Pacific (Warners, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles and I finally got in the room together I ran him Across the Pacific, the second film on which John Huston and Humphrey Bogart collaborated and Huston’s third film as a director — though Huston signed up for the U.S. Signal Corps as a documentary director to help the war effort and his call-up came through while this film was shooting. Huston met Vincent Sherman, whom Jack Warner assigned to replace him and finish the film, just before he was to shoot a scene in which three Japanese assassins ambush Bogart in a theatre. “How does he get out?” Sherman asked. “That’s your problem! I’m off to the war!” Huston replied.

Across the Pacific was on one level a follow-up to The Maltese Falcon — same director, cinematographer (Arthur Edeson), composer (Adolph Deutsch) and three leads (Bogart, Mary Astor and Sidney Greenstreet — Peter Lorre wasn’t in this one but there was a fine assortment of Chinese actors, including Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung and Richard Loo, to provide subsidiary menaces) — though as a story, Richard Macaulay’s script (produced by his old writing partner Jerry Wald and based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by Robert Carson) is hardly in the same league as Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for Falcon, and it suffered from a bizarre change forced on the filmmakers by circumstances beyond their control.

The film was originally supposed to cast Bogart as an undercover U.S. Army agent who breaks up a Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor — and when Pearl Harbor actually was attacked without Bogart being around to break it up, Macaulay did a quick rewrite and instead Bogart foiled a Japanese plot to blow up the Panama Canal (and played the film over a two-week period from November 23 to December 7, 1941 so it would look like his fictional Japanese were coordinating their attack on the Panama Canal with the strike against Pearl Harbor by the real Japanese). The film starts in New York and takes place largely aboard a Japanese freighter, the Genoa Maru, sailing from New York to Panama and expecting to go through the Canal — until U.S. authorities, suspicious of the Japanese intentions (more so than they were for real before Pearl Harbor!), deny it permission to pass through the Canal for “health reasons” and force it to sail all the way down South America and through the Straits of Magellan — whereupon all the principals disembark anyway and the film reaches its climax in Panama. So, though the filmmakers retained the title Across the Pacific, the characters never even get to the Pacific, much less across it!

The film begins with Bogart playing U.S. Army officer Rick Leland, who’s cashiered out of the service for embezzling regimental funds to cover a gambling debt — though, not surprisingly, about half an hour into the film we learn this was just a blind and Rick is really operating undercover, trying to make it look like he’ll turn traitor so he can find out what the Japanese are planning. (This was actually a pretty common device in Warners war films from the early years of the war: Errol Flynn played a similar character in Desperate Journey.) On the Genoa Maru (“Maru” is part of the name of virtually any Japanese watercraft and appears simply to be their word for “boat” or “ship”) Rick meets mystery woman Alberta Marlow (Mary Astor) and Dr. Lorenz (Sidney Greenstreet), who teaches at a university in the Philippines and openly admires the Japanese. They are three of five passengers on what is otherwise a freighter carrying supplies to Panama planter Dan Morton (Monte Blue); the other two are Japanese and during the sailing one of the Japanese passengers disappears and another appears on the ship, a discernibly different person but using the same name.

The new person is actually a prince of the royal blood who has volunteered to fly the bomber that will attack the Canal — and which has been assembled piece by piece out of parts shipped to Morton’s plantation; Morton himself is an alcoholic (making this role something of a repeat of the one Monte Blue played in White Shadows in the South Seas at MGM 14 years earlier) and he’s so far out of it he hasn’t noticed that Lorenz, who’s in charge of the overall plot, has infiltrated Japanese agents into his work force so he’s now a virtual prisoner in the plantation he nominally still owns.

Across the Pacific isn’t a great film — it’s hardly on the level of Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The African Queen — and the problem with it is that the war movie and the film noir keep clashing with each other. But it’s still an efficient studio product with a bit of the Huston obsession with groups of people in tight situations on some sort of quest, and the scenes at the plantation are not only the richest and most pathos-driven parts of the film, they uncannily anticipate the Huston/Bogart collaboration Key Largo from six years later, in which Edward G. Robinson played Greenstreet’s role, Lionel Barrymore played Blue’s, and Lauren Bacall played Astor’s (though in Key Largo it’s known from the beginning that they are father and daughter, while in Across the Pacific that’s a revelation saved for the end — thereby allaying Rick’s suspicions that she’s part of the Japanese plot and allaying our suspicions that Bogart and Astor were going to have to play another scene with him turning her in to the authorities at the end à la Maltese Falcon).

There’s also a curious anticipation of Casablanca, made several months later: not only is Bogart playing a character named “Rick” but he’s got a sidekick named “Sam” who’s a person of color, though this Sam, played by Lee Tung Foo, is Asian instead of Black and a hotel manager instead of a piano player. Across the Pacific is mostly a workmanlike project of the studio system, and sometimes a bit more than that; though it’s not the high point of the Huston/Bogart collaboration, it’s still very much worth seeing.