Welcome back, Mr. Rains…
While France was occupied during the Second World War, its soldiers, sailors, and airmen managed to deal heavy blows to the Axis with assists from the English and Americans. Like many other aspects of the war this effort was fodder for Hollywood’s movie factory, and in 1944 our guest of honor shepherded an all-star cast in Passage To Marseille. Directed by the ever-versatile Michael Curtiz, the film was payback in more ways than one and must have felt cathartic to a public growing weary of war.
Passage opens with a bomber crew who have just made a successful run over German targets in France. On the way back the waist gunner drops a message for what is presumed to be his wife before the B-17 heads back to England.
A London journalist, Manning (John Loder) arrives soon after to conduct research for his column, and on the drive he comments about how serene the area looks. There are open fields, Jersey cows, quaint little cottages, and giant hay bales everywhere.
After meeting and chatting with Captain Fraycinet (Claude Rains) over dinner, Manning watches with amazement as the bucolic splendor he saw earlier has now been transformed into a fully-functioning airfield. The haystacks are really control stations, the barns are really hangars, and the fences are taken apart section by section. The only real part of the scene, the Jersey cows, are taken into the hangars while the raid goes on.
Manning gets more and more intrigued as he finds out additional details about the bomber crews. One group especially intrigues him, and as he has dinner with the Captain he notices the crews are silent when most men would be shooting the breeze. On the airfield he notices the Captain exchange words with one man whose eyes are haunted and sad. It’s almost too much for Manning to take, and as he and the Captain have coffee he asks about this man and his crewmates. Fraycinet is happy to oblige.
Jean was originally a journalist writing articles for a paper devoted to a free France. When the surrender happens, he’s both amazed and saddened at the way people seem to submit wholesale to the occupation. One night Jean’s paper is raided by ruffians while the police stand by and watch, and Jean and his girlfriend, Paula (Michele Morgan), have to escape through a back door.
The two of them run off and get married, but they’re also on the run, as Jean is accused of killing one of the hoodlums. Despite moving constantly the authorities catch up with them, and after a sham trial Jean is sent to the notorious Devil’s Island in French Guiana.
Jean quickly becomes a legend among the prisoners. He’s like the Cooler King. Harsh conditions don’t break him. Solitary confinement doesn’t break him. He and the group of men he works with meet up with an old man they nickname Granpére, who wants to leave Guiana and go back to France to fight the Nazis. He’s build a crude sailboat that he thinks will get him there.
However, circumstances dictate that one person has to stay behind and Grandpére decides he’d be no good in the fight anyway. The men set off, but the craft is anything but seaworthy, and they don’t have nearly enough food and water for a long voyage. A French tramp steamer, the Ville de Nancy, picks them up when they spy the men floating half-dead.
Yeah, about that. The Ville is bound for Marseille, but when the French surrender they change course for England. They’re not without distinction, as they carry a war hero, Major Duval (Sidney Greenstreet) who most of the men fawn over to varying degrees. He grills the Devil’s Island prisoners about who they are and what they were before they were on Devil’s Island. It’s a diverse group, including, among others, a murderer, a pickpocket. and a deserter. Duval thinks the men are up to no good, but Fraycinet has other ideas. He suspects the men are victims of circumstance and becomes their confidante once he hears they want to fight the Nazis.
It’s a good thing too, because not everyone aboard is honorable. Our heroes may have to make good sooner than they think.
Passage To Marseille dealt out a double dose of payback. Not only was it about the Free French pummeling the Nazis for taking over France, but Warner Bros. being its usual bad self, this time against the French government. According to New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, five years before Marseille Warner Bros. made a film about the horrible conditions on Devil’s Island, only to shelve it when the French government howled in protest.
Marseille was a subtle “So there,” to the French, who closed the prison for good in 1953. Two of the three islands in the penal colony are now tourist attractions, though Devil’s Island is strictly off-limits due to unsafe currents.
Warner Bros.’ film looks terrific. Cinematographer James Wong Howe created very harsh lines and long, bar-shaped shadows throughout the prison scenes in the film, symbolizing the characters’ feelings of entrapment. Those bars stay even when the men have found their way onto the Ville. It’s so prevalent that when the shadows are gone the sense of freedom is palpable.
The film was not without its problems. Howe clashed with Curtiz to the point that Howe almost bailed. Jack Warner almost didn’t allow Bogart to be in Passage unless he starred in a film called Conflict first. Despite that, the proverbial ducks lined up in their proverbial row, netting about a million dollars at the box office.
While Passage To Marseille is technically an ensemble piece, this is very much Bogart’s film. Bogie is classic Bogie for a scant few minutes. He’s got the trench coat, fedora, and pinstripe suit, filmed with the camera pointing up. The rest of the time he’s either sweaty and grimy or brooding in a corner with grief-stricken eyes, the camera deeply focusing on his face and mood. Bogie looms large and Passage never wants the viewer to forget it.
Looming just as large is Claude Rains as Fraycinet, who steadies a disheartened, morosity-prone Jean and reminds him to be his best self. It’s a pretty big switch from the dynamic of Casablanca its subtle ironic playfulness.
In this case Fraycinet is a father figure. When Jean tries to jump ship because he’s impatient to get to Paula, Fraycinet reminds him that Paula would want him to fight. The brave Jean is who Paula loves, and Jean wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he goes back on that part of himself. Jean sees reason in this and is able to draw strength from it at crucial moments, looking to Fraycinet for approval.
It’s a very interesting interplay to watch. Whenever Fraycinet assures Jean that he’s doing the right thing by staying in the fight, Jean’s eyes soften and he looks more at peace. In a less formal and weighty situation, Fraycinet might have been giving Jean thumbs-up signs or high fives, except that wouldn’t have been a thing among World War Two-era Frenchmen.
Passage To Marseille is a great film. While some might find it confusing due to the flashback-within-flashback structure, every actor is note-perfect and the film compelling. Claude Rains’ exceptional Freycinet is the cherry on top.
For more of the great Claude Rains, please see Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting, ladies–it’s always a pleasure! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you on Sunday for Crystal’s Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon…
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