Passage to Marseille (Michael Curtiz, 1944)

It’s about a group of French convicts who escape from Devil’s Island to make their way to the motherland to fight the good fight against the Nazis, and the Captain whose ship picks them up and becomes sympathetic to their goal. 

But oh, if only it were that easy.  Instead of a relatively straightforward premise like that, we’re treated to perhaps the only instance I can ever remember of a film employing the dreaded flashback within a flashback within a flashback.  It still isn’t that hard to follow despite that insanely unusual story structure, but the way the story just goes backwards, and backwards again, and backwards again, it stops being revelatory of characters’ motivations and what-not and becomes a “Memento”-esque gimmick, and even more egregiously, like four separate movies in four separate time periods, some noticeably less interesting than others.  On the bright side, no pun intended, some of the lighting, especially in what I’ll call the boat chapter and the prison chapter, is simply spectacular.  As Claude Rains’ Captain Freycinet interviews the escapees in a cabin on his small vessel following their rescue, the lighting of the cabin and each of the men is very hard and evocative, and the shadows distinct, so that the cigarette smoke is very, very visible and these men, whose motives and reason for being stranded at sea is still unknown at this point in the film, are shrouded in shadow and mystery, particularly Humphrey Bogart’s Jean Matrac, as Bogart’s mannerisms of a mysterious sadness and despair makes his character the one who really stands out, and not only because it’s Humphrey Bogart.  In a similar vein, the prison chapter (the second of three consecutive flashbacks and third of four periods in the film’s backwards-traveling timeline, if you’re keeping score…), by far the most interesting and attention-grabbing portion of the entire film, is genuinely thrilling and suspenseful, most notably because the dank, Turkish-like prison is lit so evocatively, that at one point during a rather astonishing near-birds-eye tracking shot as we move from cell to cell in the isolation ward, when we come to Matrac’s cell and Bogart struggles to stand and look into the light, it was like that insanely amazing moment in “Frankenstein” where the creature looks up into the light.  Yeah, it’s that impressive.

Following that, we’re treated to a rather suspenseful, step-by-step escape, but that’s right around the end of where I was tuning all-in to this movie.  Surrounding the 15 or so minutes of gorgeously-lit prisons and boat cabins and Great Escapes and a very, very cool naval battle is 135 minutes of poorly-written, archetypical characters looking out into the great blue yonder with a gleam in their eye extolling the virtues of patriotism and fighting for freedom while saying Vive la France a lot.  At least Curtiz, et al seem to make an attempt to disguise their propaganda as a well-made action/adventure/thriller picture, which this is, but despite anti-Nazi propaganda maybe being the most worthwhile of all propaganda, this was still pretty eye-rollingly lame when everyone outside of Sydney Greenstreet’s cowardly and mutinous Major Duval is preprogrammed to sacrifice everything for country and to tell everyone else why it’s so important to sacrifice everything for country.  “Casablanca” had a similar message but managed to conceal it rather well, but Curtiz just misses the mark in trying to repeat that success in his big follow-up.  And that leads to what might be my biggest problem with “Passage to Marseille,” and that’s that Bogart is just all wrong for the main role, at least for a good chunk of it.  In so many films, from “The Maltese Falcon” to “The Big Sleep” and even “Casablanca,” he’s a rugged, hardened cynic, and yes, he sticks his neck out for no one.  That’s why the flashback-within a flashback-within a flashback, when we see him as an anti-war, revolutionary journalist on the lam with his girl, just seems so false and out of character for him.  He’s Bogart for god’s sake, the ultimate cynic…it just felt completely wrong to see him so nationalistic and devoted to a higher cause.  Later, when we move forward in time (a couple of times…) and Matrac’s been hardened and sapped of his willpower from his experiences in prison, that’s more like the Bogart we all know and love…hell, the wrinkles on his face actually seem more accentuated than usual with how bitter and toughened his character’s become.  But that was too little, too late, when everyone else around him by that point is thoroughly established to be as shallow as they are.  Above all, though, this film as a whole just felt wrong somehow.  It felt wrong to see Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, four great, great actors, all sitting in the same shtunky cabin with other character actors reciting lame lines when each of them has the acting chops to carry a scene all by himself, it felt wrong to be force-fed the notion that country is the most worthwhile and virtuous thing to live for, it felt wrong that just when I’d start to really get interested in the story, there’d be another flashback to a point in the story whose tone was completely different than what came before (the transition from the gritty brutality of Devil’s Island to Matrac’s backstory, which feels an awful lot like the lovey-dovey flashback from “Casablanca,” couldn’t possibly be any more awkward), and it felt wrong for a Bogart character to actually care about something besides his own well-being.  This was exciting for a moment or two, but eh, I guess I’m just not the patriot that Matrac is  .


5 comments so far

  1. Cheryl on

    Hey, Simon! Love the photo! Many people have commented on the “flashback-within-flashback” structure of “Passage to Marseille”. But actually, the movie follows the novel it was based on: “Men Without a Country”, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.

  2. Faisal J. on

    Reblogged this on That Dark Alley.

  3. marlene jenkin on

    Please print-out the ‘timeless’ last letter written by Jean Matrac to his family, which is read at his grave site ceremony.

    • Jeannie Speakman on

      Captain Freycinet: My comrades, I can think of no more fitting last words for our friend than those which he himself wrote as his last words and wasn’t able to deliver. “My dear son, today you are 5 years old and your father has never seen you. But someday, in a better world, he will. I write to you of that day. Together we walk, hand in hand. We walk and we look. And some of the things we see are wonderful, and some are terrible. On a green stretch of ground are 10,000 graves, and you feel hatred welling up in your heart. This was, but it will never be again. The world has been cured since your father treated that terrible abscess on its body with iron and fire. And there were millions of healers who worked with him and made sure there would be no recurrence. Their deadly conflict was waged to decide your future. Your friends did not spare themselves and were ruthless to your foes. You are the heir of what your father and your friends won for you with their blood. From their hands, you have received the flag of happiness and freedom. My son, be the standard-bearer of the great age they have made possible. It would be too tragic if the men of goodwill should ever be lax or fail again to build a world where youth may love without fear,and where parents may grow old with their children, and where men will be worthy of each other’s faith. Take care of your mother, Jean. I hold you in my arms. I kiss you both. May God keep you and love you as I do. Good night and au revoir till our work is finished. And until I see you, remember this. France lives. Vive la France.” That letter will be delivered.

  4. Jeannie Speakman on

    I would love a print of the letter from Matrac to his son, also It would be a perfect letter for just what happened in France this week…..the people of France need to hear those words.

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