THE ARCHIVIST XLIV: Triple Bogey [PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE, THE BIG SLEEP, KEY LARGO]

 

The Archivist
Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

This week sees the release of Dark Passage on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, their fourth such release starring Humphrey Bogart and the third pairing him with frequent co-star and real-life spouse Lauren Bacall (Don’t be surprised if their remaining pairing, To Have And Have Not, gets a release announcement soon). In honor of this new release, we’re looking at those three previous discs, Passage To Marseille (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Key Largo (1948).

Passage To Marseille [1944]

– Directed by Michael Curtiz

The Big Sleep may be the most famous film of this trio, but Passage To Marseille, a rousing adventure film, was my unequivocal favorite.

For most viewers, its most striking trait is how much DNA it shares with Casablanca (1942). Besides Bogey, there are many actors in common between the films, notably recognizable players like Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Helmut Dantine, and Sydney Greenstreet. The re-teaming extended beyond the camera as well, with Michael Curtiz returning to direct, along with the same producers and much of the same crew.

Like Casablanca, Passage To Marseille is a World War II story told from the periphery. Here the theme of French resistance, lightly touched in Casablanca, comes to the forefront.

In following up such a huge success (this is Casablanca we’re talking about), Passage To Marseille seems to linger largely in the shadow of its predecessor, which is unfortunate as I didn’t see it as a disappointment at all. I love Casablanca, and rather than feeling let down, I was happy to return to this creative team and their world.

The film’s most daring and unique trait is its triple-nested storytelling (i.e., a flashback within a flashback within a flashback) which digs further into the characters’ pasts, a device which remains little-used in this extreme fashion (The Grand Budapest Hotel being a rare example. By contrast, the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas somewhat jettisoned its novel’s complex layering). In the wrap-around story, told from a hidden WWII airfield, Captain Freycinet (Rains) tells a reporter how he met some of the Frenchmen in his command, when the ship he was on rescued them from a raft adrift at sea. The rescued men (Bogart, Lorre, and others) relayed their story: they were convicts, exiles who escaped a penal colony to return to their homeland and defend her against Nazi invaders. In plotting their escape and who should be involved, they had recounted the story of Jean Matrac (Bogart), a political prisoner in a more heavily guarded part of the compound who had been framed for murder, and opted to bust him out to lead their outfit.

Key to the success of this plotting device is that all four layers of the story (the airfield interview, the maritime rescue, the prison escape, and Matrac’s tragic past) are treated with similar weight, and we spend time in each time periods, each with its own narrative arc that contributes to the ultimate culmination of the full tale.

If there’s any fault to find, it’s that Bogart spends a lot of time in the background of his own movie with so many other characters about (apparently attributed to his marital problems at the time), but I viewed it as more of an ensemble film about a group of French patriots, and I like it that way. The layering is handled well without becoming confusing, and adds dimensionality and variety with a sense of compounding discovery. Passage To Marseille is a wonderful movie and I enjoyed it immensely.

The Big Sleep [1946]

– Directed by Howard Hawks

The Big Sleep is doubtless the most well-known and best-loved entry in this trio, and with good reason.

Humphrey Bogey is private detective Phillip Marlowe, the oft-recurring character who has appeared in countless film and TV appearances by such thespians as Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, James Garner, Michael Gambon, Powers Boothe, James Caan, Danny Glover, Dick Powell, and Philip Carey among many others. Despite such esteemed company, and being the only time he played the character, Bogey’s version of Marlowe is probably the most widely recognized and most closely associated with the character: smart, sarcastic, a bit of a loner, and ready to throw down as the situation requires.

In a scene famously sent-up by The Big Lebowski, Marlowe is hired by a wealthy patriarch to look into what seems a relatively straightforward issue with his younger daughter, a wild girl who may have gotten herself into some trouble. On the way out, elder daughter Vivian (Bacall) intercepts him to inquire about their conversation, and hints that the whole story goes a lot deeper. And right she is, as the story offers endless twists and turns.

The seedy noir tale has a lot for it: enough tough guys, beautiful girls, firecracker dialogue, character reveals, and murderous intrigue to make your head spin. And spin it does: it’s that last one that presents the biggest challenge. The mystery and jumble of characters, motivations, double-crosses, and blackmail is so dense that I admittedly don’t fully comprehend the story, even after a more conscious rewatch.

As its classic poster prominently states, the hot item on this ticket is BOGART AND BACALL. Their chemistry is phenomenal, and she’s quite wonderful as his equal in both intelligence and charisma. The big question mark is where her allegiance ultimately lies, and their relationship kept me invested even when the twists and turns were a confusing blur.

Key Largo [1948]

– Directed by John Huston

Tempers flare when a small group of people finds themselves holed up in a Florida Keys hotel during a raging hurricane – with a notorious gangster and his henchmen.

Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a post-war Army Major who travels to meet the family of George Temple, his close friend and brother-in-arms who was killed in battle while under his Command. The deceased’s widow Nora (Lauren Bacell) and her wheelchair-bound father-in-law James (Lionel Barrymore) run a hotel in the Florida Keys. Frank quickly develops a rapport with the family, sharing his war stories and obvious bond with the man whom they have all loved and lost.

The Temples’ entire hotel has been rented out to a small group of menacing, edgy types who claim to be there on a fishing trip, but don’t seem interested in vacationing. Among them is a depressed alcoholic woman named Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor, who would win an Oscar for her supporting role), whose melancholia seems the clearest indication that something unwholesome is in play.

As a hurricane approaches, the gangsters – for that’s what they are – get antsy about their secret plans getting derailed, and become increasingly threatening. Frank recognizes their leader (Edward G. Robinson) as Johnny Rocco, a notorious and dangerous Prohibition-era mob boss who was exiled to Cuba.

Despite sharing top billing with her male co-stars, Lauren Bacall plays a smaller supporting role in this film. And while Bogey plays the main character, it’s definitely Edward G. Robinson who steals the show with commanding performance as the menacing, hard-talking Rocco. Gaye, it turns out, is the gangster’s girlfriend, whom he treats with callous disrespect.

The dialogue-heavy film covers the tense situation of the group being pent up through the storm. Like many films based on plays, it’s not only talky but feels a bit grounded in one place – most of film is set in and around the hotel – but camera placement and a segment at sea keep things from getting too stagey. The common loss of the three protagonists endears them to the audience; I cared about their plight and hoped for a happy ending.

The Packages

Special Features and Extras – Passage To Marseille

Passage To Marseille is not only my favorite film of the group, but has the best Blu-ray presentation as well. The disc boasts an interesting “Warner Night At The Movies” format which gives a feel for a vintage movie pre-show experience with a trailer, newreel, cartoon, and short films.

Warner Night At The Movies
Uncertain Glory Trailer (2:13)
“Lady Marines Learn How Leathernecks Get That Way” (0:56) – A vintage newsreel
I Won’t Play (17:56) – A short film
Jammin’ The Blues (10:15) – A Jazz band performance
The Weakly Reporter (6:41) – A Merrie Melodies WWII home-front propaganda cartoon

The Free French: Unsung Victors (16:51)
Probably the most relevant featurette in relation to the movie; about French fighters in WWII.

Breakdowns (6:46)
A classic era blooper reel with surprisingly salty language

Theatrical Trailer (2:17)

Special Features and Extras – The Big Sleep

Most of the extras on The Big Sleep have to do with its earlier alternate 1945 cut, which presents a slightly expanded narrative and is included on the disc, albeit in standard definition, along with an intro and in-depth comparative companion.

1945 Pre-Release Version (1:56:20)

Introduction by Robert Gift (1:14)

The Big Sleep Comparisons 1945/1946 (35:59)

Theatrical Trailer (1:54)

Special Features and Extras – Key Largo

Theatrical Trailer

A/V Out.

 

Get it at Amazon:
Passage To Marseille [Blu-ray] | [DVD]
The Big Sleep [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]
Key Largo [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]
Dark Passage [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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the author

Austin Vashaw is a technology and new media professional in Overland Park, KS (a Kansas City 'burb). Film yakker, wisecracker, tact lacker, and BK Stacker snacker; lover of photography, Victorian literature, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. @VforVashaw | letterboxd.com/VforVashaw