Monday, May 16, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Tokyo Joe" (1949)

I'm beginning to realize how much Hollywood reused story lines that had proved successful. "Casablanca" was a big hit, so that basic set-up -- Humphrey Bogart as a man of dubious loyalties in an exotic land, centered around a saloon, involved with nefarious dealings and a notorious woman -- was recycled several times. "To Have and Have Not" was an example previously covered in this space, and now I've stumbled across another: "Tokyo Joe."

This 1949 film with a B-movie feel is not widely remembered, and perhaps the reason is that it so closely resembles "Casablanca." The big difference is that instead of being an expat firmly rooted in his adopted homeland, Bogie plays a guy returning after a long absence. In other words, she doesn't walk into his gin joint, he walks into hers.

I should note that "Tokyo Joe" was not the movie I was expecting to see. I'd ordered it up in my Netflix queue along with a bunch of other World War II flicks -- those following the Reeling Backward column may have noticed the trend -- and I thought "Joe" was about an American pilot during the war. Joe Barrett was a pilot during the war, but the film is set in roughly the same year it came out, and Joe has long retired from military life.

He comes back to Tokyo to check on the status of the bar named after him, but not until being hassled by the American military. He's given only a 60-day visitor's pass. Joe arrives back at the bar to find it miraculously untouched by the many bombing raids, but not doing much business in the postwar funk that seems to grip the entire land. His friend Ito (Teru Shimada) is running the place, just getting by but better than most in Japan these days.

After refreshing their judo skills on each other -- in a rather painful-looking scene -- Joe and Ito have a discussion about the relationship between Japanese and Americans these days. Most Japanese feel guilty about having attacked Pearl Harbor, and shame at having been defeated by another power when their leaders told them they were invincible. The fact that the Americans have generally treated the Japanese well only feeds their shame.

Joe is astonished to learn that his wife Trina (Florence Marly), whom he thought dead, is still alive. He rushes over to her house, but finds her married to a British diplomat, Martin Landis (Alexander Knox). Joe abandoned her right before the war, and she divorced him in the interim. There's an interesting scene where the two men confront each other, and Joe tells Landis right out that he plans to win Trina back.

The romance between Joe and Trina is singularly unconvincing. Marly plays a Russian, with a not-terribly-good accent that sounds like a vaguely European lilt ... perhaps even, Swedish?

She has a blonde icy look and an impossibly tiny waist that made me ill every time I looked at it. Her confession to Landis that Joe holds a strange sexual power over her -- she doesn't use those exact words, but her description of wilting at the mere sight of him is enough -- is not borne out in her scenes with Joe, which are oddly flat.

In order to stay in Japan, Joe starts an air freight company with Japanese crime boss Baron Kimura, played by the great Sessue Hayakawa, as his secret partner. As near as Joe can figure out they're only hauling frozen bullfrogs, but it's not long before something more sinister turns up.

Joe later finds out he has a daughter with Trina, and Bogart's scenes with the girl are genuinely touching and a bit funny. Here's this hard-boiled guy -- Joe was prepared to resort to blackmail to force Trina back to him -- totally melting at a 7-year-old pixie.

The ending of "Tokyo Joe" is notable for its ambivalence. Joe is forced to choose between obeying the American military or Kimura, and appears to capitulate to Kimura, who is holding is daughter hostage. Things work out so that Joe saves the day, but is shot by Kimura and near death. As he's toted away on a stretcher, it's entirely uncertain if Joe will live, and if he does if Trina will choose him or Landis, and if the girl will ever find out her father's identity.

In an era when Hollywood loved cut-and-dry endings, "Tokyo Joe" is notable for the way Humphrey Bogart never steps fully into the light, or out of it.

2.5 stars out of four

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