Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sirocco (Santana/Columbia, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Hoodlum Saint was considerably better than the movie Charles and I watched last night, Sirocco, a 1951 film produced by Humphrey Bogart’s Santana company in association with Columbia (the studio he went to in 1947 to make Dead Reckoning after he’d renegotiated his Warner Bros. contract to be non-exclusive) and released in June of that year, four months after his last film for Warners, The Enforcer. (Both The Enforcer and Sirocco feature the young Zero Mostel in key supporting roles.)

Santana made four films with Columbia as partner and distributor, two of which pushed the envelope — Knock on Any Door (in which Bogart is an attorney who tries — unsuccessfully — to redeem a young psychopath from his old neighborhood, played by John Derek in a film directed by Nicholas Ray — ironically, Derek’s character is closer to the protagonist of the book Rebel Without a Cause than any of the people in the film of that title, also directed by Ray!) and In a Lonely Place (also directed by Ray, and co-starring his then-wife Gloria Grahame, and a tough melodrama even though the script bowdlerized the source novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, in which the screenwriter Bogart played in the film was also a serial killer) — and two of which were just pretty standard Bogart vehicles, Tokyo Joe (1949) and this one.

After the fabulous success of Casablanca quite a few of Bogart’s subsequent films attempted to duplicate its appealing mix of international intrigue, cynicism vs. idealism conflict and romance — among them were Passage to Marseille (actually originally planned as a Casablanca sequel!), To Have and Have Not, Key Largo and Tokyo Joe — but this one was perhaps the most blatant imitation, and paradoxically the weakest. Not only does it, like Casablanca, take place in an Arab country (Syria) and feature a conflict between an occupying power (France, in 1925, under the League of Nations mandate) and an indigenous resistance, it features Bogart as an American expatriate forced to make a shady living (he’s running guns to the rebels while at the same time selling food at an inflated price to the French army) and even casts a Swedish actress, Märta Torén, as his girlfriend.

Oddly, the best scene in Sirocco is the opening, before either of the principals are introduced; the film quickly cuts from a scene of the rebel leader, Emir Hassan (Onslow Stevens), rallying his troops with the justice of their cause, to one of the French general in charge of the occupation, LaSalle (Everett Sloane), telling his second-in-command, Col. Feroud (Lee J. Cobb, looking quite out of place in a cast in which he’s the only Method actor), that diplomacy is useless and only a firm hand, including killing five Syrians for every Frenchman the resistance kills, will enable the success of the occupation. The parallel between the situation and later events — particularly the U.S.’s still-continuing misadventure in Iraq, where we went in under similarly spurious claims and won quick military victories but then couldn’t subdue a popular resistance — is so close one almost expects to see a cable news logo on the lower right-hand corner of the screen, and when Sirocco makes these political points it’s at its most powerful as a film.

Alas, those aspects don’t last long and for the rest of it it’s simply a bad Casablanca knock-off in which the elements that meshed so superbly in the earlier film — the politics, the intrigue, the romance — utterly refuse to gel. Despite good screenwriters (A. L. Bezzerides and Hans Jacoby, adapting a novel called Coup de Grace by Joseph Kessel) and a producer (Robert Lord) and director (Curtis Bernhardt) Bogart had previously worked with at Warners, Sirocco just creeps along so slowly it seems a lot longer than its 98-minute running time, and for a supposed thriller it parcels out its action scenes awfully parsimoniously — the film is nearly an hour old before anything exciting happens. It doesn’t help that Märta Torén, who got this role as part of Columbia’s attempt to ballyhoo her as “The New Ingrid Bergman,” is several orders of magnitude below the talent level of the real Bergman — or that the other guy she’s in love with is Col. Feroud, who just when we’ve got to like him for his advocacy of diplomacy in dealing with the Syrian resistance turns into an asshole by knocking Ms. Torén to the ground during an argument. (At least in Casablanca Bogart’s rival for the heroine’s affections was someone altogether sympathetic — as hard as it was to believe Paul Henried as an anti-Nazi action hero.)

The screenwriters even inserted some business about the passes that are supposed to get the Bogart and Torén characters out of the country — but their use as a plot device turns out to be more Tosca than Casablanca and the movie is even more disappointing in that neither Bogart nor any of the other actors get to play any big scenes of moral transformation. All the characters — the ones who survive, at any rate — end up pretty much the same as when they started, and though the writers deviated from the Casablanca template enough to have Bogart’s character die at the end, we really feel nothing because he hasn’t changed or grown from his experiences, so his death becomes a mere plot contrivance instead of a tragedy.

Sirocco has some nice noir-style compositions from director Bernhardt (who as a German director in the 1920’s had learned the noir look at its source) and cinematographer Burnett Guffey, artfully deploying a mad array of sets (Robert Peterson is the credited art director) that look like Columbia had built them all for “Arabian Nights” movies and assembled them into a surprisingly credible representation of 1925 Damascus. But the exquisite nature of the visuals can’t cover up the excruciating boredom of just about everything that’s going on in them.