First off, let me admit that I jumped the gun getting to Huston’s war documentaries before covering 1942’s Across the Pacific. But I’m kind of glad I did, because it provides a nice break between Let There Be Light and Treasure of the Sierra Madre—two very intense films.
Pacific is much lighter and a lot of fun. It reunites three stars from The Maltese Falcon—Bogie, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet—all playing the roles we love them in. Bogie is Rick Leland, an undercover Army agent trailing Japanese sympathizer Dr. Lorenz (Greenstreet), who’s intent on bombing the Panama Canal. Aboard the Genoa Maru, bound from Halifax to Panama. Along the way, they encounter a number of mysterious figures, chief among them the all-to-proud-to-be-an-American Joe Totsuiko (brilliantly played by Victor Sen Yung), a second-generation Japanese man who makes a point of showing up when he’s not wanted and talking at you like you’re old friends when he’s met you only five minutes prior.
First-time viewers will notice a lot of similarities between Pacific and Casablanca, from the exotic locations, international intrigue, and Bogart’s performance, right down to his iconic trenchcoat and fedora and even his name. But Pacific actually came out two months before Casablanca. Casablanca‘s the better film, yeah, but the spirit of high adventure is just as good–actually, better.
Huston doesn’t say much about the picture in his autobiography other than he was called away for Army duty right near the end of it, so director Vincent Sherman was called in to finish it. I won’t go into many details, but at the end of it, Bogie’s trapped in an impossible situation, and it was left to Sherman to get him out of it. His solution was haphazard, and Huston said he felt that the picture “lacked credibility” after that point, but that’s all of a scant five minutes, and the action is nevertheless fun.
It’s not as deep as Falcon nor funny as Beat the Devil, another light character-actor piece that brought Bogie and Peter Lorre back (Greenstreet’s character was replaced by Robert Morley), but there’s plenty of action, wonderful performances, and Mary Astor is as cute as ever, playing the peppy Alberta Marlow who may or may not be in on Lorenz’s scheme (and any man who doesn’t swoon at Astor’s eyes when she answers the door “free as a bird” needs a tune-up for his libido).
Perhaps the most surprising part of Pacific, however, is its treatment of the Japanese. Even though it was shot during war-time (and takes place on the eve of Pearl Harbor), there’s no demonization. You’d think that the temptation’d be there to portray them as slanty-eyed devils, but while there’s a few linguistic stereotypes, all in all, it’s never an embarrassment to watch.
I cheated a bit this morning and took in Prizzi’s Honor before viewing this, seeing Huston at the end of his career and then at the beginning just reinforces my admiration for his diversity. Huston had an indelible eye for casting and could recognize the strengths of every actor he used–and would play to them. That doesn’t sound like much, but so many actors are defined by their performances in Huston films–Bogart in The Maltese Falcon defines the cinema of the ’40s, Bogart in The African Queen or Beat the Devil is the early ’50s; despite its flaws, who doesn’t know Gregory Peck as Ahab in Moby Dick? Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits; Richard Burton in Night of the Iguana pushed all the boundaries everyone wanted to push in the ’60s; Paul Newman in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; Caine and Connery in The Man Who Would Be King; and Nicholson and Turner (looking and talking like the great love of your life) in Honor, and even his own daughter Anjelica.
Haven’t even gotten to Albert Finney in my favorite performance of his and my favorite Huston film of all, Under the Volcano…or even Daddy Warbucks in Annie. Well, perhaps they’re not all the performance, but among the fans and actors themselves, they’re likewise among the best. The closest contemporary in this respect would be Tarantino…which is one of those sentences you’d never imagine typing when you first put your fingers to the keys.
I don’t have too much else to say other than Across the Pacific’s a pleasure throughout. Femme fatales, spy masters and shady men, whirling fans and palm trees, it’s not a great picture, but it’ll make the popcorn extra tasty.