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Thursday, 13 August 2009

Tokyo Joe (1949)

Director: Stuart Heisler
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Alexander Knox, Florence Marly and Sessue Hayakawa

The first non-Japanese movie allowed to film in Japan after their surrender in the Second World War was a Humphrey Bogart picture, not just starring Bogie but made by Bogie through his Santana Pictures Corp. Santana made seven films, five of them with its owner in the lead, this being the second after Knock On Any Door. The fact that he owned the production company meant that he could make whatever films he wanted, regardless of what the studios might think. However it meant that he could hire anyone unencumbered by a studio contract, which generally meant a different set of faces than those we're used to seeing act alongside him.

We find ourselves in Tokyo where Bogart, as Tokyo Joe, is coming home. I'm sure you're stunned to discover that. He's Joseph Barrett, an American who ran a bar and gambling joint on the Ginza before the war. He hasn't seen it for seven years because he left Japan shortly before Pearl Harbor, then entered the service, leaving it a colonel. Now he's back to work his property, Tokyo Joe's, to start an air freight business and to live and work in the town he had made his home. Of course life is more than a little different in the seven years he's been away.

Part of it is business, of course, as the free city he remembers is now an occupation zone where any potential businessman is tangled up in red tape from moment one. To get through the red tape he rekindles a relationship with a powerful local man, Baron Kimura, who had run the Japanese Secret Service during the war. He finds that once Kimura's assistance has been invoked it can't be un-invoked, causing their Nippon-American Air Freight company to be both profitable and highly dangerous.

Part of it is personal though, and this personal business threatens to cause trouble for the rest of his business. He was married in Japan, to a Russian lady called Trina Pechnikov that sang in his bar and who he's been mourning for years, but now he's back in Tokyo he discovers that she's still alive. However she's not just alive, she's married and with a dangerous wartime history that might just come back to bite them both. What's more, he finds that he has a daughter that he never know existed, little seven year Anya, who doesn't know who he is either.

Made in 1949, this has more than a few obvious nods to Casablanca, perhaps too many for its own good, but I really can't fault Bogart for revisiting such a great success. There's more here than that though. There's a lot of back and forth intrigue that generally works pretty well, partly because Bogart is just so good at this sort of role that calls for a down and dirty character who is still morally upstanding and utterly reliable in a pinch, but partly because he picked a lot of decent actors to flesh out his supporting characters. He hopped the globe to find them too: Czech actess Florence Marly, the alien queen from Queen of Blood, to play Trina; and the very recognisable and laconic Alexander Knox, Canadian born but playing British here as her new husband.

Most memorable of all is Sessue Hayakawa, a great Japanese actor, who plays Baron Kimura here somewhat like an oriental Dennis Price. Hayakawa was a huge star in the silent days and I can vouch for his talent from superb films like 1915's The Cheat and 1919's The Dragon Painter. He struggled when sound came to Hollywood because he had a thick Japanese accent and so quickly dropped down the credits as quickly as 1931 when he just couldn't do much right in the Fu Manchu flick Daughter of the Dragon. After that he went back to Japan or to France where he made a string of films, presumably dubbed, until Bogart brought him back to Hollywood for this picture. I'm sure he was happy to return, as eight years later he garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Hayakawa and Knox are solid here, though Marly disappoints. Bogart himself is excellent though he can't make up for the film's shortcomings. It does a lot of the right things at the right times but somehow fails to engage and ends up spending too much time on autopilot. 1948 was a great year for Bogie, making two great classics, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, but 1949 only saw this and Knock On Any Door. Both were enjoyable but neither great movies, though followed up with Chain Lightning, probably the worst of his post-stardom films I've seen thus far with only five left to go and also directed by Stuart Heisler. After that he'd be back on his game though in the superb In a Lonely Place.

One thing the film does have going for it is its fairness, though I wonder how much of this was done on almost propaganda grounds. Beyond a highly unfortunate choice of phrase used as a pet name early in the film, there's no racism here. Sure, the villain of the piece is Japanese, and his aim is to use more villainous Japanese to do even more villainous things, but plenty of his countrymen are on firmly on the side of the good guys and it isn't being Japanese that makes the bad guys their enemies. There are a number of scenes on both sides of this coin, as if to very deliberately explain that in a post war occupied country just how many Japanese are our honourable and trustworthy friends, while reminding us that the danger isn't over. Some of these Japanese are still our enemy.

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