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Columbia TriStar
1951 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 98 min. / Street Date January 21, 2003 / $24.95
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Marta Toren, Lee J. Cobb, Everett Sloane, Gerald Mohr, Zero Mostel, Nick Dennis, Onslow Stevens, Ludwig Donath
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Art Direction Robert Peterson
Film Editor Viola Lawrence
Original Music George Antheil
Written by A.I. Bezzerides, Hans Jacoby from a novel by Joseph Kessel
Produced by Henry S. Kesler, Robert Lord
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A few weeks back Savant reviewed Pépé le Moko, a sultry 30s thriller that oozed steamy romance in an exotic foreign setting. Hollywood immediately co-opted the subject matter, and soon everyone from George Raft to Clark Gable tried their luck at playing disillusioned sinners scrambling for atonement in some far-flung corner of the world. Humphrey Bogart made it his trademark with the all-things-to-all-people hit Casablanca. Later in his career, he'd alternate between prestigious work for other producers, and a series of cheap films he co-produced at Columbia, through his Santana company. These include one or two gems (In a Lonely Place is sort of an orphaned classic), but the majority trade baldly on Bogie's trenchcoated man-of-the-world image. Fans of Bogart will naturally enjoy Sirocco, but it's not a good movie, not by a longshot.


Gunrunner Harry Smith (Humphrey Bogart)'s latest shipment of arms to Syrian rebel Emir Hassan (Onslow Stevens) is snagged by the occupying French, leading embittered General LaSalle (Everett Sloane) to consider executing hostages every time French soldiers are ambushed or blown up by terror bombs. LaSalle's head of intelligence, Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb) presses for negotiations instead. But his efforts for peace don't impress his paramour Violette (Marta Toren), who's more interested in high living and wants out of war-torn Damascus. Her opportunity comes when Smith steps in as a romantic possibility; but Feroud is fast closing in on the smuggler.

Between 1997 and 200, Savant had several lengthy phone conversations with A.I. Bezzerides, a grizzled but mentally sharp old writer who in retirement gained a hot reputation, thanks to the noir classics he wrote: On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly. On a good day, he'd talk one's ears off about those shows, and pictures as unique as Thieve's Highway and Track of the Cat. But he had little to say about Sirocco, good or bad. Compared to his usual angry, anarchic point of view, Sirocco just doesn't have their fire.

As a light drama, the show plays just fine. Bogart and especially Lee J. Cobb do fine acting work, and there are dividends to be had in good bits by Zero Mostel (on the verge of the blacklist) and favorite Nick "Va-va-Voom, Pretty Pow!" Dennis. But Sirocco is lukewarm at best, short on thrills and predictably pat in both plot and development. The situation starts out like good Bezzerides, unusually harsh. Syrian terrorist insurgents (or patriotic defenders, take your pick) are locked in a death struggle for Damascus with noble French soldiers (or oppressive colonial gangsters, take your pick). Unmasking Bogart's gunrunner is no trivial matter, and he spends much of the film skulking about trying to avoid capture and the firing squad.

But not much gels from all this except dry plot twists. Bogie is thoughtlessly cynical when successfully smuggling, and thoughtlessly sober when captured. His attraction to Marta Toren, a dark beauty with magnetic eyes, goes not much farther than gentlemanly flirting and several attempts by both to split to Cairo for, as they put it, 'a good time.' The major conflicts don't come into relief. Their big escape attempt is neither an action setpiece or an emotional highlight, like the finale of Casablanca, but a feeble attempt to exit by bus. Bogart falls in and out of custody more than once, but Toren's reactions are at best subdued.

Sirocco is too smart not to realize it's been cobbled together from pieces of The Third Man and older Bogie classics like To Have and Have Not. But, besides the gallantry of the Lee J. Cobb character (who behaves more like the real hero) the rest of the show is cynical happenstance, unaided by deeper character insights. The Nazi-like tendencies of the French 'good guys' don't help much either, and we don't share Cobb's faith in Western virtue when he lectures Emir Hassan on what civilized behavior is and isn't.

Marta Toren (actually, Märta Torén) was a Swedish beauty imported, along with Viveca Lindfors, to compete with the then scandal-plagued Ingrid Bergman. Toren very strongly resembles Alida Valli, but sadly had a nothing career in Hollywood. She actually worked in a second American remake of Pépé le Moko, the flop Casbah, but as Pépé's moll, not the romantic lead. For this cut-price Bogie vehicle, it looks as though the producers chose budget casting every time.

Perhaps Bezzerides intended to make Sirocco a more complex picture, with the Bogart and Cobb characters forming a two-sided coin. Being basically a studio-bound quickie, potential nuances like that are lost in a blah production, directed without any emphasis whatsoever. The show must have been shot in record time, because it adopts a flat, no-frills 50s style. There's no atmosphere. The interior sets are cheap and fake, the camera angles are all dull, and all the costumes look like they just came from the dry cleaners. Even Bogie's trademark trench coat looks too perfect.

There's a hint that everyone knew they were making a corny show, when 2nd string French hero Gerald Mohr seemingly does a quick parody of Bogie. It's right at the end of a take, when the two are making a final midnight visit to rebel headquarters. Mohr lets Bogart walk off screen, and then adjusts his shoulders and curls his lip over a cigarette, just as would a Bogie imitator. Letting Mohr get away with that shows the lack of belief in the production.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Sirocco is a clean transfer of a show that probably hasn't screened much in 35mm since it was new. Burnett Guffey's crisp photography of the backlot sets is perfectly rendered, and the sound, including George Antheil's sometimes-effective score, is clear.

For extras, Columbia has created a montage of photos (some from non-Columbia films!) and advertising art for their Bogart series, and set them to music. Therefore, all the 'special features' on the package back are either promotional materials, or simple descriptions of normal DVD functions, like 'Scene Selections.' The cover art is very attractive and tasteful.

A disclaimer on the package text erroneously says the film has been 'reformatted to fit your TV.' Made in 1951, two years before CinemaScope, the movie is supposed to be flat 1:37, and has of course not been altered.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Sirocco rates:
Movie: Good-- saved by Bogart's presence
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: publicity and ad art montages
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 3, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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