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Passage to Marseille

Passage to Marseille(1944)

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Following a band of political prisoners who have escaped from the horrific confines of Devil's Island to fight the Nazi invasion, Passage to Marseille (1944) is a rather unconventional film for Warner Brothers director Michael Curtiz. Not only was it made in the midst of World War II but it marked one of the few times the director strived for a realistic tone in his movies. The semi-documentary approach to several sequences and the unexpected deaths of two major characters were a departure from the cliched heroics of many studio-produced films of this era. More importantly, Passage to Marseille focused on the many sacrifices made by French citizens to accomplish their goal of once again making their native France a free nation. Employing an elaborate series of flashbacks, Curtiz shows us the personal side of their struggle, as well as the patriotic side.

For Passage to Marseille, Curtiz cast as many Europeans as possible, including several actors who had previously worked together on his masterpiece, Casablanca (1942) - Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Helmut Dantine, Claude Rains, singer Corinna Mura and Louis Mercier. Humphrey Bogart and George Tobias were the only American actors in key roles and they were playing Frenchmen. The script was based on a novella entitled Men Without Country by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the authors of Mutiny on the Bounty. It first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and was purchased by Warner Bros. for $75,000 - an astronomical sum for book properties in those days.

Curtiz was well known for his often dictatorial and gruff manner on movie sets and Passage to Marseille was no exception. There was constant tension between Curtiz and his chief photographer, James Wong Howe, over lighting and sets, with Howe threatening to walk off the film on one occasion. But everyone felt his wrath when the film fell behind schedule andtechnical problems were not always solved to his satisfaction. "If Mike would only be patient and not try to run the Camera Dept., the Effects Dept., the Electrical Dept., and all the other departments and give orders all day long everyone would be able to function much more efficiently," reported one unit manager on the film (in The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz by James C. Robertson). Even Bogart and Peter Lorre created some problems with their lack of cooperation at times. However, Curtiz's perfectionism finally did pay off as the film features uniformly excellent performances and an evocative atmosphere created by art director Carl Jules Weyl. The Devil's Island scenes, featuring an artificial, studio-created jungle and realistic prison sets, are extremely impressive in spite of any technicaldifficulties incurred. Plus, the film was considered an artistic andfinancial success, with the box office returns showing a profit of well overa million dollars - a veritable bonanza for its day and age. It also didn't hurt that the movie served up morale-building propaganda in an entertaining fashion.

In a poll conducted by the American Film Institute in June of 1999 to determine the top 50 screen legends of all time, the ever-popular Humphrey Bogart received the number one ranking. By 1943 when he made Passage to Marseille, he was already a top box office drawand one of the most respected actors in the industry. Yet, as powerful as his position may have looked to others, he still had to contend with movie mogul Jack Warner as a boss. Studio heads in those days were known to stoop to anything to keep their stars in line. In Rudy Behlmer's Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), we get an inside account of what even a star ofBogart's reputation had to put up with when negotiating with Warner.

Bogart wanted to do Passage to Marseille because he saw it as an important contribution to the war effort and to his career. But in order for Warner to give his go ahead on the film, he wanted Bogart to commit to starring in a minor movie project which came to be known as Conflict (1945). Bogie was not eager to play the part of a husband plotting his wife's murder in order to marry her sister. This was mostly because he wanted to protect his newly developed image as the good guy/hero and he'd had his fill of playing gangsters, thugs and murderers in the years before The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). So, when Warner tried to force the film on him, Bogie rebelled. The following excerpts are from a conversation between Bogart and Warner that took place on May 6, 1943 and appears in its entirety in Behlmer's aforementioned book.

Bogart: "This is personal between you and me, Jack. I am more serious than I have ever been in my life and I just do not want to do this picture [Conflict]. If you want to get tough with me you can, and I know how tough you can get, but if you do get tough and do the thingsyou say you will, I will feel that I have lost a friend"

Later in the conversation, Warner asks for loyalty: "You must remember, Humphrey, it is not Jack Warner that is asking you to do this picture. You are doing this for the company, and the same thing would happen in the steel business." Bogart answers: "It isn't the same as thesteel business; you are selling people with feelings, and I tell you sincerely I can't do it. You can do all kinds of things to me, but I just can't do this picture."

In another exchange Warner says: "In this business you can't always take the apples off the tree; you have to take some of them that are on the ground." And Bogie responds: "Then youadmit that this is a rotten apple." Warner answers: "No, I don't admit any such thing. You may think that it is not good for you, but I think it will be great, and want you to rely on my judgment." Finally, Bogart says: "I know you can't always have good apples all of the time, and I am perfectly willing to take some that are rotten, but not this time."

Later, in answer to Bogart's accusation about threats, Warner says: "No, I am not threatening you, but if you don't want to play ball I will have to think along certain terms contractual-wise. We will have to suspend you and we will not put you in Passage to Marseille."

After much haggling and discourse, Bogart finally did Conflict which was little more than a mediocre melodrama and not one of Bogart's better films. But his agreement to do it allowed him to make Passage to Marseille and many other exceptional films at Warner Bros. like Key Largo (1948) so we can all be happy for Bogart's concessions that May day in 1943.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Jack Moffitt, Casey RobinsonBased on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Editing: Owen Marks
Music: Max Steiner, Ned Washington
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Matrac), Michele Morgan (Paula), Claude Rains (Capt. Freycinet), Sydney Greenstreet (Maj. Duval), Peter Lorre (Marius), Philip Dorn (Renault), George Tobias (Petit), John Loder (Manning), Helmut Dantine (Garou), Eduardo Ciannelli (Chief Engineer), Vladimir Sokoloff (Grandpere).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.

by Joseph D'Onofrio

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