Sirocco (1951) directed by Curtis Bernhardt
part of the Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart box set from Indicator
(PLEASE NOTE: This is a REGION B set)
Previously reviewed from this set:
Dead Reckoning (1947)
Knock on Any Door (1949)
Tokyo Joe (1949)
Sirocco is undoubtedly the most unappreciated film in this set and possibly the most reviled. As I describe it, you may understand why, yet when you watch the picture, you might just challenge those majority opinions.
The film begins in 1925 Damascus with a gathering of English and American journalists interviewing Emir Hassan (Onslow Stevens), the Syrian rebel leader seeking to free Syria from French occupation. “You want to know why we Syrians fight the French,” Hassan says. “We fight because they have invaded our country.”
French General LaSalle (Everett Sloane) sees things differently, claiming that the French presence in Syria was mandated by the League of Nations, which settles the matter.
Even if you don’t know much about the history of the Middle East (I certainly don’t, but I can recommend The Arabs: A History by Eugene Rogan as a good starting point), this is an intriguing beginning, and we know we’re likely to see some significant conflict.
And we do. During an ongoing revolt, we see Syrians hiding and gunning down a French night patrol, the fourth such incident in the past 10 days. Incensed, the general tracks down the rebels and orders their execution. But LaSalle’s Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb) suggests the general wait 48 hours to allow him to discover who is supplying arms to the rebels.
I’m sure no one reading this review will be surprised to discover that the gunrunner is none other than Humphrey Bogart, here as American black marketeer and gambling house operator Harry Smith. We the audience know this, but the French authorities don’t. Yet Smith draws attention to himself when, after Feroud accuses him and four other local food marketers of price gouging, Smith agrees to cooperate while the others balk at the colonel. Smith knows Feroud could simply confiscate the goods, but why shouldn’t Smith play ball and bide his time?
At a local nightclub, Smith eyes a woman named Violetta (Märta Torén), who appears to be attached to Feroud. Smith begins thinking about how he can rectify this situation when something happens that I will not disclose, an event that brings these three characters into each others’ lives creating an interesting triangle.
Smith is resourceful and smart, knowing when he can control a situation and when he can’t. In at attempt to woo Violetta, Smith arranges a harmless (but somewhat costly) ruse that works until it doesn’t. Even so, he has a Plan B and probably a Plan C, D, and E. In another scene, with Feroud taking Violetta to a local restaurant, Violetta notices Smith enjoying a steak at a nearby table. Violetta calls over a waiter and nods toward Smith’s table. “I’ll have what he’s having.” The waiter shakes his head. “Filet mignon. It’s not on the menu. Mr. Smith brings in his own food.”
By this point in the film, most viewers are ready to make the claim that Sirocco is just another rip-off of Casablanca (1942). Both feature Bogart, exotic locales, women who want to escape their current situation, an American with local connections and apparently no loyalties, and protagonists who are forced to make important decisions at the end of their films. While all of those things are present, Sirocco is not, I would argue, an imitator of Casablanca. In the disc’s audio commentary, film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson make this argument far better than I could. Sirocco is a much darker film than Casablanca, with more film noir elements present as well as more cloudy moral dilemmas. It’s too easy and simplistic to claim that Harry Smith is Rick Blaine several years later. (Actually it’s several years earlier, since Sirocco is set in 1925.) Smith is primarily a businessman, and while we may question the true intent of his actions at the end of the film, he’s a far more hardened character than Rick.
Sirocco also arrives on screens several years after WWII, but the French are still a presence in Vietnam in 1951. And let us not forget that HUAC was still a major concern in Hollywood. Screenwriters A.I. Bezzerides and Hans Jacoby clearly had these situations in mind when working on Sirocco. The constant aural presence of gunfire and explosions offscreen remind the viewer that the conflict is constant, with seemingly no end in sight.
Anyone who may view Sirocco and dismiss it would do themselves a disservice by not watching the film again with the audio commentary with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson, who dismiss many of the Casablanca comparisons and highlight some of the important aspects of the film. More importantly, the two film historians tackle the question of whether Bogart’s career was in a tailspin after 1950’s In a Lonely Place. This period was a complex one for Bogart and frequently misunderstood, yet Heller-Nicholas and Nelson bring some much-needed illumination to the topic.
While Sirocco is not a great film, it is an entertaining, yet dark one that should be enjoyed on its own merits. It is my hope that viewers will discover or rediscover this film.
Although the disc contains only two significant extras, they are both excellent:
Audio commentary with film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson
The South Bank Show: “Bogart: Here’s Looking at You, Kid” (1997, 52. min.)
This very welcome extra is a real treat covering Bogart’s entire life and career featuring Bogart’s son Stephen Bogart, who initially distanced himself from his father’s legacy, then came to embrace it.
Next: The Family Secret (1951)
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