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By the mid 1940s, Humphrey Bogart had begun to grumble about the lack of variety and complexity in the roles he was being offered by his longtime home studio, Warner Brothers. Yet when he formed his own production company to create new films for himself, he returned to a tried and true formula for the postwar adventure Tokyo Joe (1949).
Bogart's first attempt at independent production was a partnership with a drinking buddy, an ex-newspaperman and producer at Warners in the early 40s, Mark Hellinger. Unfortunately, Hellinger died suddenly in 1947 at the age of 44, leaving their dream project, a film adaptation of Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, unproduced. (It was made five years later at Fox with Gregory Peck in the role Bogart hoped to play.) Bogart then set up a production company named for his yacht, Santana, with writer-producer Robert Lord, also a former reporter, and Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute their films. Two of Bogart's pictures with his new company were just the kind of artistically and commercially successful projects he had been looking for Knock on Any Door (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950), which although not the box office hit of the first has since become a respected classic with one of the actor's best performances. Both films were directed by an exciting young director, Nicholas Ray, who had debuted a year earlier with the stunning young-couple-on-the-lam story They Live by Night (1948). The Santana production that came between those two, however, fell back on the winning formula of Casablanca (1942), in which Bogart firmly established his image as the reluctant hero, the man determined to stay out of politics and protect his selfish interests in the midst of widespread conflict until romance and his own better conscience draws him into the fray. The pattern had been more or less reworked for To Have and Have Not (1944), the film that first brought him together with Lauren Bacall. It has its variations here, despite similarities, with a shift in location to Asia.
In this story, Bogart is again an American expatriate nightclub proprietor, this time in Tokyo prior to Pearl Harbor, married to a beautiful Russian. When war breaks out, believing his wife to be dead in a concentration camp, he leaves Japan and joins the Allied air forces. Returning to Tokyo after the war, he finds his wife is alive, remarried, and the mother of a little girl. He discovers the girl is really his daughter and is disturbed to learn that his wife made pro-Japanese propaganda broadcasts during the war, which she insists were done under threat to their daughter's life. Determined to recapture his old love and start his family anew, Joe runs afoul of Baron Kimura, the former head of the Japanese secret service, who blackmails Joe with the threat of exposing his wife's "war crimes." Joe agrees to pilot illegal goods across the border until he learns that one shipment will contain three notorious war criminals. To force his hand, Kimura kidnaps his daughter. Now Joe must make the ultimate sacrifice.
As Kimura, Sessue Hayakawa made his first American film in 18 years. Once a major worldwide silent film star, Hayakawa's return to Hollywood found him relegated to supporting and character parts. The New York Times review of the movie described his performance as "what might be described as typical Japanese malevolence," an indication of the kind of stereotypical, villainous roles he was offered at this point in his career. He did, however, make one of those roles work for him in a major way, winning Best Supporting Actor nominations and an award from the National Board of Review for his prison camp commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
Tokyo Joe was the first American film to be shot on location in Japan following the war. Most of the main story was filmed in a Hollywood studio, but second unit director Arthur Black was sent to Tokyo for background shots, including an aerial view of Mount Fuji, shots at Haneda airport, and a bus ride into the city past burned-out factories and newly built shacks. But the venture was not without its difficulties. The first week Black and his crew were there it rained every day. When he finally got the chance to shoot, it was so late in the day and the sun so low that he had to film one side of an alley then switch to another alley and film a different side to make a single street backdrop. Language difficulties slowed things down considerably, and Black had to work carefully to conceal the fact that the GI stand-in for Bogart provided by the US Army was a different man every day. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the experience and predicted that before long more films would be shot on location in Japan.
Bogart's romantic rival in this picture was played by Alexander Knox, who had received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor for his role as the 28th president of the United States in Wilson (1944). Knox received the best reviews of all the cast in Tokyo Joe.
Only six films were made under the Santana banner. One other, Sirocco (1951), starred Bogart. The company also made two minor films without him, And Baby Makes Three (1949) and The Silent Voice (1951).
Director: Stuart Heisler
Producer: Robert Lord
Screenplay: Cyril Hume, Bertram Millhauser
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Editing: Viola Lawrence
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Original Music: George Antheil, Paul Mertz (uncredited)
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Joe Barrett), Alexander Knox (Mark Landis), Florence Marly (Trina), Sessue Hayakawa (Baron Kimura), Jerome Courtland (Danny).
by Rob Nixon