Saturday, November 29, 2008

Across the Pacific

"Across the Pacific" (John Huston, 1943) An attempt by some of the principals of "The Maltese Falcon" to make lightning strike twice...and failing miserably. Director John Huston, stars Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet re-unite to make this larky propaganda film about Japanese collaborators during the Second World War. Bogart plays a disgraced Navy man, but it's a ruse so he can work undercover to infiltrate Japanese spy units (If so, why then do we go through the exercise of seeing him turn in his uniform and being shunned by fellow sailors? Because it's a "movie!") Bogart and Astor meet cute, and then turn all lovey-dovey robbing the two actors of any of the frisson (and resulting sparks) that the Spade-O'Shaughnessy relationship did in "Falcon."

And, look: One has to view films through the lens of the times in which it was made. It's only fair to the movie to acknowledge the attitudes of the time. But the racial stereotyping in this film is beyond the pale, with the one Japanese-American speaking perfect English obviously being a spy. One would think seeing this film that it was a necessary precaution to intern Japanese citizens. That's enough reason to jeer this film. And did one of the Chinatown residents really have to say "theater tickee?"* Huston was a fine craftsman of screenplays; did he really pass muster on this script with all its hackery? To be fair (or fair-er) to Huston, though he directed this thing, he abandoned this film to join the military's photographic unit where he did his splendid documentaries about the the Italian front. One can see why Huston was in a hurry to leave. A disappointing little "programmer" to get the American blood up, the only thing "Across the Pacific" proves is that a movie can be too cute and despicable at the same time.

* I may be stretching this so far it'll snap, but the director John Milius is a conservative with a droll sense of the ironic. He is also a film-student. He's seen a lot of movies. A lot. Conceivably, he might even have seen "Across the Pacific." So, in 1975, he had cast John Huston (the director of "Across the Pacific") as Secretary of State John Hay to Brian Keith's Theodore Roosevelt in his very fine "The Wind and the Lion." At a state banquet, Hay is seated next to the Chinese ambassador, and says to him (about the cutlery) "You likee knif-ee? You likee fork-ee?" and had the cinema-recall to use a joke from "The Searchers" ("You speak good Commanch'. Someone teach you?") after the Chinese Ambassador sits down from making an eloquent, metaphoric toast. He turns pointedly to Haye amd says "You likee speak-ee?," to Hay's evident embarrassment.

Anyway, I like to think he did. I have my own prejudices that way.

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