I give Passage to Marseille so much credit for daring to be its own film. Casablanca was such a critical and commercial success in 1942 (winning the Best Picture Oscar to boot) that it must have been tempting for Warner Bros. to just rush out a quickie cash-in retread. They didn’t. PtM was based on a popular best-selling novel, and I have long held the theory that movies based on novels usually announce themselves quite clearly: more depth of character, more interesting supporting characters, more layered narratives. PtM features all of these qualities, especially the third.
At first viewing, I found it odd that the filmmakers decided to go with the novel’s Byzantine structure of a flashback within a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. It’s complicated storytelling, but Michael Curtiz’s brisk, sharp direction ensures that the audience is never lost. From a hidden airstrip in rural France, we flash back to a canoe of mysterious men rescued from the sea; then backward to the prison camp; then back even further than that. This is an intriguing puzzle box of a film. I think this complicated storytelling works because it properly places the climax of the tale where it belongs: at the end of the film. Had the novelist or screenwriters chosen strict chronology, this compelling, violent resolution would occur about twenty minutes in. Passage to Marseille is a masterpiece of storytelling.
Because Casablanca looms so large in both pop culture and my consciousness, I found myself wishing that these actors were playing their same Casablanca roles, in a sort of ongoing “Rick & Friends” extension of the movie I love so well. They are not—which initially gave me the impression that the performances in Passage to Marseille are not of equal quality. For someone who has seen Casablanca as often as I have, it takes a while to realize that the performances here are just as strong, because the four “Casablanca actors” are still playing variations on the types of roles that won them their contracts at Warner Bros. in the first place. In Passage to Marseille, Bogart is another lone hero with secrets-- a man with more guts than any ten other men. Claude Rains is the charming and ironic realist, the sharpest, wittiest man in the room. Sydney Greenstreet is still the blowhard coward, a man who uses a wall of words to mask his treachery and insecurity. Peter Lorre is again the slimy weasel, possessing talents no other character can offer yet lacking in the people skills to make him an effective member of the team.
Even though Passage to Marseille is a very different film, in a different genre, it is a worthy follow-up to Casablanca, and well worth your time.
Official Passage to Marseille Thrill-O-Meter Reading: 80%
(Exciting WWII action, especially a scene where a French boat is beset by a German bomber plane)
(Like most war films worth their salt, the film’s depiction of how cheap and random life can be is properly chilling. Depiction of prison colony is memorably grim.)
(Some intriguing stunts during the film’s action sequences, though in one long shot, we can clearly see it is Bogart’s double running the length of a ship and doing impressive leaps and jumps.)