Sailing Into The Danger Zone – Passage To Marseille (1944)

A Special Feature by John Featherstone.

“I want to reach the danger zone by nightfall…”

I’ll start by saying a huge thank you to Late Reviewer for giving me this opportunity to talk about a maligned, forgotten or unheard-of film with a typo in its title. It’s a film I feel is a classic deserving of a better reputation and if you read this then maybe, just maybe, you’ll want to investigate it yourself one day…

OK, so what is Passage To Marseille?

Briefly, it’s a forties action film structured around a series of flashbacks. I first saw it when I was 14 and as it was made by Warner Bros. – who produced the old movies that appealed to me most – I sat down with no expectations.

I’ll talk through the plot first then share a few thoughts and to make your reading experience easier, here are the only people you really need to know about…

  • Humphrey Bogart: Jean Matrac
  • Claude Rains: Captain Freycinet
  • Michele Morgan: Paula
  • Michael Curtiz: Director
  • James Wong Howe: Cinematographer

“Funny how much more you can say with a few bars of music than a basketful of words…”

We open with that thunderous Warner Bros. musical motif, shield logo and credits over shots of a model boat in the studio tank. And look, they left the ‘s’ off Marseilles. You guys!

OK, a film set on a ship. Got it.

Hang on… Now we’re in an aircraft on a bombing raid with Humphrey Bogart. What happened to that model boat? And why is Bogey lobbing a package out over a farm? Ah, this title card flashing up might help out…

Somewhere In England…

Scratch the above, we’re not on a ship or in a bomber, we’re on a farm where a reporter meets Captain Freycinet just as an air raid is announced. Twist! The farm is actually a secret Free French airbase and everything is disguised.

Jean Matrac is off to drop more bombs and as the planes take off, Freycinet says to the reporter, “I could tell you a story about him.” Of course he could. It’s a film about telling stories. Let’s go back in time…

Flashback One: 16 minutes in...

Hey, it’s that ship – the Ville de Nancy – from the credits! I get it; we’re definitely spending the rest of the film aboard a ship. Cool, I’ll pull up a deckchair.

Freycinet’s voiceover introduces us to the crew as James Wong Howe’s stunning camerawork takes us up, down and across the vessel. It’s so atmospheric, the shadows, the lighting, the gentle rocking of the ship. Who wouldn’t be drawn in?

It’s 1940, Freycinet is sailing to Marseille(s) and making an enemy over the captain’s dinner table. His opponent, an arrogant military type named Duval, thinks the Maginot Line is “invincible” but by the time they’ve sailed through the Panama Canal, the Maginot Line has fallen – and a small boat of five men has been spotted drifting…

The men, including Matrac, are winched aboard and revived. Duval has their number – “They are fugitives from Devil’s Island” – and Matrac is given the same striped jumper that fellow convict-on-a-boat John Garfield wore in The Sea Wolf. He hates authority. They “have no leader. We’re all equal. We’re a group of free men” and they lie about where they’ve been.

Freycinet is intrigued by #TheFilthyFive. Who are they and why they were sent to the slammer in the swamp / jail in the jungle?

  • Renault: Deserter
  • Marius: Pickpocket
  • Petit: Murderer (government official; understandable)
  • Garou: Murderer (girlfriend; unforgivable)
  • Matrac: Hang on; we’ll get to him…

Flashback Two: 37 minutes in...

Woah, we’ve left the ship. We’re in the jungles of French Guyana and four of #TheFilthyFive are building Route Zero – a road to nowhere – when they get talking to an old butterfly collector. Grandpère is an ex-con who can’t leave the island, one of the many richly-drawn characters of Passage To Marseille that I haven’t the energy to describe.

The Four tell Grandpère yes, they’ve been naughty and France hates them but they want to escape and fight for her. But not without Matrac, they say as La Marseillaise drips into the score and they reminisce about Paris, the countryside, tradition etc.

Why do they need Matrac? Because he knows the ocean, he’s escaped before and crucially: “He fought the Nazis long before there was a war…”

Flashback 3: 48 minutes in...

This time we’ve gone back to Munich, 1938. Matrac (not Rick), is a reporter on the phone to Paula (NOT Ilsa… this isn’t Casablanca, dammit!), slating Daladier for giving Hitler control over the Sudetenland. Obviously, his paper goes with “I Accuse Daladier!” – French liberals loved accusing people on the front pages.

Except – disaster!

A mob trashes his office and the police (“dirty fascist flunkies”) do nothing. It’s 50 minutes in before Bogart punches someone but chronologically, only about two.

Not-Rick and Not-Ilsa flee, driving to the dogging spot where they first met. She was only wearing a hat and a basket (cheeky!). They get married and the following scenes of them together are so beautiful I almost regret the Ilsa/dogging comments above.

Except – more disaster! Matrac is unfairly arrested for murder and sentenced to fifteen years on Devil’s Island. Paula promises to wait for him and we’re back to Swampshank.

Muttering Matrac is solitary for knifing a guard who made jokes over letter from Paula. (The guard kept calling her Ilsa though, so he got what he deserved if you ask me.)

Solitary AKA Quartier des Incorrigibles is a frankly wonderful set. We go up and over Matrac’s cell with its barred ceiling and overhead walkway with the guard’s taunts and subsequent violence punctuating the silence.

When he’s released, Matrac rounds off #TheFilthyFive and they escape in Grandpère’s canoe.

Except – yet more disaster!

The canoe is taking on water so Grandpère surrenders his place, making them promise they’ll return to fight for France. #TheFilthyFive repeat Grandpère’s oath. Four of do them anyway. Matrac, in the shadows, keeps his mouth firmly closed…

And we’re back to the ship. Dawn; light floods through the shutters of Freycinet’s cabin and the story of their escape is over.

Except – still more bloody disaster! News comes over the wireless that France has surrendered. The scene of the captain announcing the surrender is extraordinarily powerful with despondent characters sobbing. Not Matrac. He sneers and grins. He saw it coming.

When the captain slyly changes course for England so Germans don’t get the ore he’s carrying, there’s the double shock twist:

  • They’re no longer heading for Marseille(s)
  • Marseille(s) doesn’t appear at all

(Fun fact: Bogart had a brief, two-film habit of doing this in the early forties: Across The Pacific takes place on a ship sailing from Nova Scotia to the Panama Canal.)

Matrac (Not-Rick), is unhappy to learn about this change of course. He wants to return to his beloved Paula (Not-Ilsa), and asks Freycinet by moonlight on a deserted deck to help him escape, saying he doesn’t care about his country. If that’s the case, Freycinet asks, why should he help him?

Matrac shrugs, and offers: “I leave that to your conscience.” Bogart delivers the line as if it’s the last word. As if only an unreasonable man wouldn’t help him. As if to say, that’s you told.

He’s wrong. Freycinet is a man of integrity. He responds with a beautifully-phrased bollocking full of authority and his voice rising at the end: “Your wife is waiting for the man who went away. The man who loved his country. The patriot. Would you betray such a woman? I leave that to your conscience!”

Fade-out, fade up and Curtiz follows this scene of quiet brilliance with scenes of very loud brilliance.

Duval has gathered everyone on deck. He’s learned the ship is sailing to England, is staging a mutiny and not too fussed about taking prisoners: “Now we’ll settle them with the only argument that means anything. Force!”

A brawl breaks out – #TheFilthyFive team up with deckhands and the crew to batter the treacherous guys from the engine room. The traitors get hold of the deck guns; Matrac shoots one and gives Duval the punch he so richly deserves.

This is obviously intertextuality (he says, flexing his 2:2, B.A. Hons – Film & Literature muscles), as Duval is played by Sydney Greenstreet who had Bogart:

  • Kicked in the head in The Maltese Falcon
  • Knocked out in Across The Pacific

So it’s lovely and clever seeing the knuckle-flavoured favour being returned here.

Except – still more flipping disaster!

The radio operator has given the ship’s position to a German bomber. Everyone waits in silence until its engines pierce the air.

Then, with a stunning combination of model work (aircraft, ship), back projection and sets, Curtiz stages an aerial attack that is so awesome in its execution you feel the fate of the whole world depends on the Frenchmen being able to repel it.

Bullets thwack into wood and metalwork and shred the deck. Bombs drop either side of the ship, Matrac gets blown sideways, the plane circles, screams, dives and bombs, leaving fountains of water soaking the decks and giving #TheFilthyFive a much-needed wash.

The continuity of this terrifying attack is just incredible, especially given the multiple techniques used to film it. And of course, it’s Matrac who, when the plane begins its final run, keeps his machine gun spitting, killing the pilot, sending the aircraft into the sea and preserving democracy.

Then at this point, Passage To Marseille hits a false note.

The aircrew climb on the wing and in a murderous rage, Matrac slaughters them.

“You cannot assassinate helpless men!” the captain implores.

“Look around you, captain,” Matrac snarls, “and see who are the assassins!”

I get it. He’s brutalised. He’s been gunning for fascists since his journalism days; they started this and they can deal with the consequences. But I also get why Warner Bros. cut that from later prints.

And now we’re back to the beginning, to the airfield, where #TheFilthyFive are employed.

We see Matrac bleeding and his bomber can’t fly over the farm where Paula and his young son live as it’s too badly shot-up. It’s triply affecting: he’s never met his son, it’s the boy’s birthday and Matrac is dying.

A man with “a tender heart in such a rugged body” is buried with full military honours.

At the graveside, Freycinet reads out the letter Matrac wanted to send his son. It’s a beautifully moving speech, the late Matrac senior passing the baton to Matrac junior.

Freycinet concludes with “Au revoir until our work is finished” and obviously “Vive la France.”

La Marseillaise pipes up and The End.

Wow, thought 14-year-old me, that was fantastic. I rushed upstairs to read the glowing reviews in Halliwell’s Film Guide and The Warner Bros. Story.

Except they weren’t glowing. Not at all.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a glowing review of Passage To Marseille. Doorstop biographies of Bogart and Curtiz, various IMDb posts, its reviews and ratings in books and online – all pretty much negative. I’ve got a book called The Many Cinemas Of Michael Curtiz that doesn’t mention it at all – not even mentioned in a chapter called “Curtiz At Sea”.

It did, however, warrant the following entry in The Warner Bros. Story: The Complete History Of Hollywood’s Great Studio…

The two main criticisms of Passage To Marseille appear to be:

  • Its flashbacks make it “too complicated”
  • It’s a poor retread of Casablanca

I don’t think it’s complicated at all. You just have to pay attention like you do when you cross the road or pretend to understand finance in a team meeting.

As for Casablanca?

Yes, there are parallels – plot, themes, studio, same cast, director, producer and composer – but I’d argue that The Conspirators (1944) and To Have And Have Not (1945) were more Casablanca-esque. I’d also argue that Warner Bros. recycled other elements and films in this period more brazenly:

  • Captain Blood, The Adventures Of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk (1935, 1938, 1940) form an informal trilogy IMHO
  • Across The Pacific (1942) is a seaborne re-paddle of The Maltese Falcon (1941) – same leads playing similar characters and both movies directed by John Huston
  • Action In The North Atlantic, Air Force and Destination Tokyo (1943, 1943, 1944) are remarkably similar in their stories of men in confined spaces crossing oceans and facing threats from the sea and sky
  • Finally, the Warner Bros. crime films can merge into one gangster goulash with Cagney’s killing of Bogart in Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties being virtually identical

I just don’t know why that particular piece of criticism has gained so much traction.

Anyway, I saw this film a couple more times on video then left it for years, wondering if maybe I was wrong? That it wasn’t very good and that I didn’t know what a great film looked like.

In September 2011, my curiosity got the better of me and I bought it on DVD, expecting an awkward Thursday night-reckoning with 14-year-old me.

But I loved it more that night than ever and I’ve been defending it as masterpiece ever since.

I love films that grow with you; that you return to after a while and spot or appreciate things you may have missed before. I understand more clearly now that Matrac hates his government, not his country – and I sympathise.

He’s cynical because the world hasn’t met him halfway; because he’s peaceful, a writer in love, a man who browses secondhand book stalls. Later, he stabs a guard, kills a blackmailer of #TheFilthyFive and slaughters defenceless airmen out of bitterness and brutality – but he isn’t past rediscovering his humanity, as his final words reveal.

Passage To Marseille is a beautifully-directed film with stunning cinematography and a richness of characters. It has action, intrigue, heartbreak and a man being eaten by an alligator. But for me, it’s a film about stories and the main one is about a writer who fought fascism before everyone else and had to endure the agony of waiting for the world to catch up.

Yes, it’s flashback-heavy and no, it isn’t Casablanca but that doesn’t matter, does it? And the truth of the matter is, somewhere near the top of the reasons why I love it, is its underdog status. The only real disappointment is that I’ve yet to see any of its critics call it Flashablanca.

If you’ve read this far then plot-wise, Passage To Marseille holds no mystery for you – but if you ever get chance to see it, please give it a chance. You won’t love it as much as me but hopefully you’ll come away thinking “That was an interesting two hours” and as for your definition of ‘interesting’, well, I’ll leave that to your conscience…

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