The shadow of Casablanca hangs heavy over Tokyo Joe, as Bogart attempts to recapture the mood of his most famous romance in a drama made by his own production company, Santana. Once again, Bogart plays an expat nightclub owner, this time wandering through the battered landscape of post-war Tokyo. And once again he rekindles his love for a glamorous old flame (Florence Marly) who is now married to someone else. There is even a song running through the film, this time the standard These Foolish Things.
Inevitably, the film, directed by Stuart Heisler, loses by the comparison with its celebrated predecessor, and I’d have to say it is relatively minor Bogart – but then, even minor Bogart is so watchable. He brings his unique blend of dry wit and underlying passion to the role of Joe Barrett, and is so compelling that at the start of the film I was really excited and thought it was a little-known masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t – the pacing falls away in the middle and there are too many unlikely plot twists, as well as a stereotyped Japanese villain.
However, I’d still say it is well worth a look, both for Bogie and for the haunting, shadowy portrait of Tokyo. The film was the first Hollywood production made there after the Second World War, with second unit director Arthur Black sent there for background footage, I don’t know whether the main cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr, of The Lady From Shanghai fame, accompanied him or whether it was someone else behind the camera, but would be grateful to know for sure if anyone can tell me (I’ve just been searching for information on this and coming up blank). Either way, the streetscapes are a stunning element of the film. While watching, I didn’t even realise that Bogart is always seen from the back in the outdoor Japanese footage. He never left Hollywood and his place was taken by a succession of body doubles in a raincoat and fedora. Once you know this, it is noticeable – but I think it is so well cut together that it isn’t really a worry.
Bogart’s character, Joe, ran a nightclub in Tokyo before the war and was married to Russian nightclub singer Trina, played by Czech actress Florence Marly. However, he walked out on her after a tiff and then war broke out – he wrongly believed she was dead and joined the Allied air forces, rising to Colonel. When he returns to Tokyo after the war, after learning she is alive, he is devastated to discover that she has divorced him and remarried. Several of the reviews I’ve read complain about Marly being too cold or having little charisma and about a supposed lack of chemistry between her and Bogart, but I think her performance is fine and especially liked her singing of These Foolish Things. She started out as a singer and the way she performs slightly reminds me of Dietrich. I also really like the scene where Joe and Trina are first reunited after his return to Tokyo – this does feel like Casablanca, especially with Bogart calling Marly “Kid” . I also liked the fact that Bogart barks out one or two lines in Japanese, emphasising the fact that Joe has lived and worked in the city.
However, meeting up with Trina again isn’t the only poignant reunion for Joe. He also returns to the nightclub and meets up with the old friend who has been running it, Ito (Teru Shimada). Their reunion scene, also included in the link I’ve given above to some clips from TCM, is another highlight, as Ito starts with a delighted “Joe, baby!”, before becoming embarrassed and slipping into some formal Japanese politeness, much to Joe’s dismay, though this doesn’t last long. They then renew their bond over a drink and an impromptu bout of Judo, which leaves them laughing alongside one another. The relationship between Joe and Ito sadly takes further twists later and is affected by stereotyping. But in this early part of the film it seems natural and multi-layered, as their old friendship is complicated by the war and by all that has happened to both of them in the interim. However, I’d have to say that some of the other Japanese characters are all too stereotyped, in particular the villainous Baron Kimura (Sessue Hayakawa). The role helped Hayakawa to rebuld his career after the war, and he does all he can with the two-dimensional character.
Joe’s return to Tokyo soon becomes dangerously complicated as he meets up with Trina’s second husband, Mark Landis (Alexander Knox, who gives a fine performance), a member of the occupation administration, and also learns that Trina has a daughter, Anya (Lora Lee Michel). To Joe’s disgust and horror, it also transpires that Trina made propaganda broadcasts for the Japanese during the war because of a threat to her daughter’s life.
I don’t think it is really a spoiler to say that Joe is the little girl’s father, as most viewers would work this out almost immediately, far more quickly than Joe himself does! The scenes between Joe and Anya are quite sweet and touching, and it is interesting to see Bogart playing a father – I’m struggling to think of many other films where he had children – but I think they rather break the noirish mood of the film and slow its pace too much. I won’t go over all the later plot twists, which become rather far-fetched, but do give Bogart a chance to show his vulnerable side and his versatility as an actor.
Tokyo Joe is available on DVD from Palladium in the UK, with good picture quality but no extras. In the US you can get it as part of a TCM Vault collection, which does feature extras – I’d be interested to hear what anybody thinks of these.
This review is a last-minute contribution to the Humphrey Bogart Day of the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon. Although I’m in the UK and sadly don’t have access to the US TCM, I’m hoping to join in on a few more days of the event.