Wednesday 8 June 2011

Sirocco (1951)

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Marta Toren and Lee J Cobb

I've successfully worked my way through most of Humphrey Bogart's career, not that hard a task as he's very well represented on TCM and on DVD. However I've found myself surprised to find that it isn't just his earliest films that are hard to find, from 1928 to 1931, before he was even a supporting star at Warner Brothers, but also his most recent. I've seen every film he made in the forties, for instance, and I'm only missing two from the thirties, at least from 1932 onwards. Yet I'm missing a full third of his output in the fifties, his last decade in film. At least Sirocco knocks it down to four to go. Made by Bogie's own production company, Santana Pictures, and distributed by Columbia, it's resonant because it's set during the Syrian fight for independence from the French. Emir Hassan tells English and American journalists that God and justice is on his side and we're supposed to be there too. Today, independent Syria still fights for freedom from itself.

Cinematically, Sirocco is immediately reminiscent of Casablanca, one of Bogie's biggest hits, if not the very biggest of them all. In that picture, he was a cynical American running a gambling house in Casablanca, at the western end of the Mediterranean during World War II. This time out, he's a cynical American running a gambling house in Damascus, at the eastern end of the Med, a couple of decades earlier in 1925. Instead of being caught up with a beautiful visitor played by Ingrid Bergman, he gets caught up with a beautiful visitor played by Marta Toren, promoted as the 'next Ingrid Bergman'. In many ways it sounds like the same film, but the difference between the two makes itself very aware as these two meet in a café: Sirocco has a much darker tone to it than Casablanca. We don't just see the likeable old jasmine seller plant a bomb underneath a table, we see the bloody aftermath too and it's far from pretty.
The characters are cut from the same cloth. Bogie is Harry Smith, as hard boiled and cynical as Rick Blaine. The rebels, to whom he runs guns, think he's an oddity, an American in Syria without morals or political convictions. 'I've had them,' he says. 'I had a belly full of them. I left them in the States with my first wife.' Toren is Violette, a mysterious foreign lady with a history, to whom he immediately forges a romantic connection. 'You have so much to learn,' she tells him and the banter works. She's already taken though, by Col Feroud, the Capt Renault of this film, who is at once the villain of the picture, as the head of military intelligence for the occupying French, and the anti-hero, because he's apparently a calm, fair and honourable man. The more obvious bad guy is his superior officer, Gen LaSalle, who doesn't see his enemy as human and proclaims the execution of five Arabs for each dead French soldier, until Feroud politely returns him to sanity.

Feroud is Lee J Cobb, who is a quiet but powerful presence in the film, in between his two Oscar nominations for On the Waterfront and The Brothers Karamazov. He keeps calm everywhere and under the greatest pressure, except when it comes to Violette, who has a habit of driving him nuts. It doesn't help when she leaves him, of course, and it really doesn't help when she throws out the name of Harry Smith, the man who helped her at the café. Toren is good at being both independent and dependent at the same time, but her career didn't take off in Hollywood. This may have been her biggest film, though she made higher rated ones. After a few European films, she went home to Sweden in 1957 and died of a cerebral haemmorrhage at the slight age of thirty. Already long established, Everett Sloane plays Gen LaSalle, though after dominating the early scenes, he disappears for a long while. His bitterness is welcome when it returns.
The tone is dark throughout, Harry Smith being a lot less in control of his destiny here than Rick Blaine ever was. Sirocco could even be seen as a vague prequel to Casablanca, not just because of the timeframes involved, but because the experiences Smith goes through are easily the sort of experiences that could have shaped Blaine. The only catch to that theory is that Bogart made Sirocco in 1951, a decade after Casablanca, and the years between only etched the weight of the world further into his iconic face. There's little romance to counter the pressure, the lighter sides coming from lesser characters. Zero Mostel and Nick Dennis are only a slight reminder of Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, but they offer much the same touch. Mostel is delightfully obtuse as Balukjiaan, an Arab trader. 'Look at me, I'm an honest businessman,' he protests. Dennis is part Andrew Sachs and part Mischa Auer, dancing around even when he isn't dancing.

While the Casablanca comparisons are obvious and early, Sirocco doesn't fare too well. It does keep us involved and it grows late after indications that it wouldn't. Perhaps two thirds of the way in, as we start to believe that the characters are set in stone, change begins and it unfolds OK, the last fifteen minutes giving Bogart and Cobb in particular some good scenes. There are some neat lines, Cobb getting the humanitarian ones and Bogart the cynical ones. 'What do you care whose gun it is,' he tells one man, 'as long as it isn't aimed at you?' Mostly though it runs on without impressing too much, an excellent example of how even poor material in the hands of those involved can be worth watching. No, it isn't Casablanca, but few films are. It isn't even a great entry in Bogie's distinguished filmography, but it's still worth a look to see how he tried to continually darken his characters yet retain some semblance of sympathy.

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