Monday 20 July 2020

Movie Review: Tokyo Joe (1949)

A listless post-World War Two drama, Tokyo Joe suffers from disengaged characters and a throwaway plot.

Army veteran Joe Barrett (Humphrey Bogart) returns to Tokyo to pick up the pieces of his pre-war life. Joe used to own and operate a nightclub and gambling joint, but fled just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now the city is run by the American military and Joe has limited visa time to plan his future. 

He had heard that his wife Trina (Florence Marly) was dead, but is shocked to find her alive and married to influential American businessman Mark Landis (Alexander Knox). Joe makes no secret he wants to win Trina back. To stay in Japan he goes into business with underworld leader Baron Kimura (Sessue Hayakawa). They launch an air freight business to export frozen frogs, although Joe suspects the Baron has more nefarious future plans. With American officials breathing down his neck, Joe discovers Trina's shocking secrets and is caught between protecting his ex-wife and thwarting dangerous militants.

Produced by Bogart's own Santana Pictures and a curiosity for being among the earliest Hollywood productions to feature post-war on-location filming in Japan (albeit with just the second unit and a stand-in for Bogart), Tokyo Joe attempts to recreate a Casablanca vibe but falls well short. The film carries promise, and the basic plot elements featuring a scrappy American navigating a defeated Japan, bureaucratic US Army administration, and the remnants of his previous life contain kernels of interest. But the pieces never gel into a cohesive drama. 

Four different writers were involved in creating a sub-90 minute screenplay devoid of wit, zip, menace and energy. Scenes drag on, the characters are monotonal, and the action scenes, when they arrive late on, are assembled with marked clumsiness by director Stuart Heisler.

Trina's big secret, verbally described rather than visually demonstrated, is simply not that compelling to drive momentum, and the film suffers a choppy second half with Joe landing in the middle of a barely defined militant repatriation plot unrelated to most of what preceded it. 

Bogart is less interested than usual, and the supporting cast is decidedly second rate. Florence Marly offers a passable physical resemblance to Lauren Bacall, but is an otherwise dour and expressionless presence, not helped by lifeless dialogue. Sessue Hayakawa starts his career comeback with a good turn as Baron Kimura, and the film would have benefited from expanding his role.

Tokyo Joe deserves credit for an overall restrained portrayal of the Japanese people, presented as a typical societal mix, and avoidance of jingoistic triumphalism. But unfortunately the laudable cultural accommodation is bundled into a blanket of blandness.

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