' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Across the Pacific (1942)

Friday, July 06, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Across the Pacific (1942)

As I watched “Across the Pacific”, John Huston’s 1942 joint, I kept thinking about how its plot, in which a disgraced army captain gets back in the cosmos’ good graces by thwarting a Japanese plot to destroy the Panama Canal, must have functioned to movie-goers a few months removed from December 7, 1941 as a kind of catharsis, or a chance to re-write Pearl Harbor as a happy ending. After finishing the movie, however, in doing a little light research, I learned, per Turner Classic Movies, that, in fact, “Across the Pacific” had been written as a thwarting of a fictional Japanese plot at Pearl Harbor. Then, when Pearl Harbor really happened, “Across the Pacific” was hastily re-written, which no doubt contributed to the movie’s ultimate slapdash quality, switching awkwardly between genres before concluding with Humphrey Bogart at a machine gun, firing away, like Brian Donlevy in “Wake Island”, just, you know, happier. Bogie could do a lot of things, and he could do some things better than anyone else before or after him…but not heroically firing a machine gun. Cool Repose was his default mode, and Cool Repose does not quite work while holding down a machine gun. There was a reason, after all, that Stefan Kanfer titled his Bogart book “Tough Without a Gun.”

That slapdash quality might also have connected to the movie’s genesis, which was less about patriotism than marketing, a chance to re-team the stars of 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon”, Bogart along with Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet. And where the “Falcon’s” plot, culled from a book, was sharp, “Across the Pacific’s” is not, lurching from espionage to romance and back again, sort of deciding on espionage, but not completely, and then never completely committing to the darkness that the espionage plot suggests. After all, Bogie’s Captain Rick Leland is court martialed and kicked out of the army without honors, for stealing, we eventually learn, and the story as it sets up gives him a chance to turn coat on a steamer bound for China by way of the Panama Canal in the name of money.

That money is offered by Dr. Lorenz (Greenstreet), a Japanese sympathizer, who wants to use Leland for information vital to his mission to blow the Canal sky high. Leland seems to waver, but not really. A sharper-edged Bogart, a la “In a Lonely Place”  really could have sold his notion of betraying America once and for all. He was an actor never afraid to play unlikable, but the script seems oddly intent on us liking him, and so his character’s edge is blunted in the romance scenes with Astor’s Alberta Marlow, a fellow steamer passenger who may or may not be a spy though the script takes few pains to try and paint her as a spy in any real way.

What’s more, the movie, as you might expect in such a precarious wartime America, contains no shortage of uncomfortable Japanese jokes, all of which I’m sure were met with riotous laughter. That’s not a knock on The Greatest Generation. Hearing these jokes made me think of Khandi Alexander’s cameo in “Patriots Day” telling the wife of one of the Marathon Bombers, who protests that she has “rights”, she “ain’t got shit, sweetheart” which led to cacophonous cheers at the screening attended, a democracy gone haywire. War does funny things to Americans. Then again, there are also occasional insights presented into Japanese culture, like a scene that lingers over the very real philosophy of judo, and then goes so far as to make Bogie the butt of the joke.

If in so many of his movies Bogie was in cool control, where the joy was in watching him command a room, in “Across the Pacific” he is often a few more steps behind than usual. That is not a bad thing, per se, because against type can work, though Bogie was the sort of star who often needed to adhere to his type to be effective. That comes home in the conclusion, which feels perfunctory, like the filmmakers did not quite know what to do, which turns out to be true. Returning to the film’s production history, TCM also recounts how Huston, set to depart for service in WWII, devised a concluding sequence wherein Rick Leland would be trapped in a house, tied to a chair, surrounded by soldiers, with more soldiers waiting outside. Per TCM: “There was no way in God's green world that Bogart could logically escape,” said Huston. “I shot the scene, then called Jack Warner and said, Jack, I’m on my way. I’m in the army. Bogie will know how to get out.” Bogie would have known how, absolutely, but this Rick Leland fella? Not so much.

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