Monday, May 05, 2008

Across the Pacific

1942, US, directed by John Huston (with Vincent Sherman)

Across the Pacific reunites director John Huston with a good portion of the cast of his first film, The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor on board a ship which makes the journey down the east coast of the US to the Panama Canal. Huston also makes use of the constantly shifting loyalties of his earlier film, where we're never quite sure who is fighting on which side, and when; everyone in the cast seems to have something to hide, and as the film moves towards its climax the revelations come thick and fast.
While there's much of the hard-bitten tone of The Maltese Falcon in the interactions between Bogart and Greenstreet - Bogart's character comes across as a cynical operator, available to the highest bidder, and blunt about what he wants - the scenes between Astor and Bogart are altogether different. There's banter here that wouldn't feel out of place in conversations between Katharine Hepburn and, well, anyone - Cary Grant, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy to name a few - and Bogart seems to enjoy the bang-bang give-and-take, though it has little of the more memorable depth of his exchanges with, say, Lauren Bacall.

The film never actually makes it to the Pacific at all, never mind across that particular ocean, with the conclusion, which feels like a 1940s template for a Bond film - these sequences were directed by Vincent Sherman after Huston headed off to war service - taking place on a plantation in Panama. The wartime flag-waving message is loud and clear in the final images, and the stakes are notably higher than in Bogart's earlier wartime effort All Through the Night, where the comic tone was easier to sustain when it was still mostly someone else's war.

Though much of the film takes place on a fairly cramped boat, Huston doesn't, to my mind, make full use of the claustrophobic potential of the setting, which often has the feel of a rather jolly cruise. Instead, the most atmospheric sequences in the film are in Panama's Japanese section, when Bogart drops into a movie-theatre for Japanese patrons: there's a wonderful escape scene behind the big screen, with the film projecting behind the action, while the entire Japanese quarter set is a fine example of Hollywood back-lot exoticism. Huston's stylistic skills also emerge in shot choices like those which focus on a hand counting out money, or Bogart's hand ominously emerging from the dark after a fight scene, or a telephone that lies on the ground in the aftermath of a death - an echo of the shot in The Maltese Falcon where Sam hears of the death of his partner.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States