Monday, December 28, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Across the Pacific"

Lord knows I have been called a persnickety purveyor of film. One of the reasons I didn't care for "Inglourious Basterds," beyond its astonishing unevenness, is the fact that the group of soldiers whose name the title bears appear onscreen for less than 20 minutes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't like it when movies double-cross their audience by purporting to be something that they aren't.

What, then, am I to make of a movie called "Across the Pacific" in which the Pacific Ocean is never glimpsed, let alone reached, forget about being crossed?

Actually, I quite liked it. It's a perfectly serviceable example of war propaganda film, made in 1942 and set in the days before Pearl Harbor. Humphrey Bogart plays a disgraced Army captain traveling aboard a Japanese ship who falls into also sorts of Nipponese intrigue.

It was directed by the great John Huston... well, partially. He had to leave during filming for his own military stint. Vincent Sherman finished things up. Mary Astor plays the mysterious woman whom Bogie bumps into on the ship and pitches woo.

I'm not really sure why they titled it "Across the Pacific," other than "Journey to Panama" probably was less likely to stir up American audiences to patriotically fork over their money for an admission ticket to see the evil Japanese get their comeuppance. But, in point of fact, Bogart boards a ship in the eastern seaboard, and only makes it as far as Colon -- the eastern side of the Panama Canal -- before the film reaches its conclusion.

Seen today, the movie is mostly interesting for its depiction of the Japanese during the war. Considering the movie was made only months after the sneak attack on Pearl, about a nation and people at which the country was actively engaged in warfare, it's fairly even-handed stuff.

Most of the Japanese crew and other characters are played by actual Japanese actors. Some of them speak in an offensive pigeon English accent, but others -- such as an amiable fellow passenger named Joe Totsuiko, speak it at least as well as Bogart. Although Joe wears coke-bottle-thick glasses, which was a common stereotype of the Japanese during that era.

There is one ship's concierge with a difficult-sounding name, whom Bogie immediately dubs Should Be.

Longtime Bogart nemesis Sydney Greenstreet plays Dr. Lorenz, a professor of sociology at a Philippine university and avowed admirer of Far East cultures. Turns out he's actually a spy for the Japanese, looking to find out about military defenses at the Canal, which his allies hope to take out at the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Bogart plays the patsy, Rick Leland, who has just been drummed out of the Army for embezzling. He was stationed at the Canal and knows the military set-up.

The audience is left to think Leland really is a rat for a while, but before long we're brought wise to the fact that he's a double-agent. His court martial was ginned up to ingratiate him with Lorenz.

Astor plays Alberta Marlow, a girl traveling the world for purposes that aren't made clear until the very end. I rather liked the Bogart-Astor pairing -- it's quite snippy in a charming way. They end up insulting each other most of the time, and she gives at least as good as she gets.

There's one really funny bit where Leland saves Lorenz from a would-be assassin, and the old doctor mentions that he carries a gun for protection, showing him a small automatic. Leland takes out his fat .45 (probably Army issue) and holds it next to Lorenz' weapon and says, "Hey, mine's bigger than yours."

Even in 1942, filmmakers loved a good dick joke.

3 stars

1 comment:

  1. I know this is from a loooong time ago, but I wanted to try to answer your question about the title. As I understand it, the movie was actually supposed to be about an attack on Hawaii, but Pearl Harbor happened either just prior or just after filming went underway, and they had to change the location to the Panama Canal, so it didn't seem as eerie. So, they were supposed to go Across The Pacific, but... well, it's like the film Thirteen Women- after all the cuts were made, only 6 women were left, but they just kept the title, anyway.