Tokyo Joe (1949) - Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart
Tokyo Joe (1949) directed by Stuart Heisler
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, the second Santana Productions film from this set, finds Bogart as ex-Air Force Colonel Joe Barrett, who returns to Japan after the war to see if his bar, Tokyo Joe’s, is still intact. It is, now being run by his friend Ito (Teru Shimada), but Joe discovers that things have changed. A bigger surprise awaits Joe when he finds his wife Trina (Florence Marly), whom he thought died in the war. Joe gets yet another shock when he learns Trina’s divorced him in absentia to marry Mark Landis (Alexander Knox), an American lawyer working in Japan.
Joe understands that his 60-day visitor’s permit and lack of funds won’t give him adequate time to win Trina back, so he’s forced to set up a business that will keep him in Tokyo. An airline freight company would do the trick, but he needs financial backing. Baron Kimura (Sessue Hayakawa), former head of the Japanese police can back Joe financially, but that guarantee comes with a price. To tell you more would ruin the fun.
Tokyo Joe is far from a great film, but it contains several interesting and sometimes compelling elements. Second unit director Art Black and cameramen Joseph Biroc and Emil Oster Jr. were the first crew on an American film allowed to shoot in postwar Japan. The images they capture tell a sobering visual story of the country’s life after defeat as well as its rebuilding. The film also resurrected the career of Sessue Hayakawa with his restrained but menacing role as Baron Kimura. And how often do we see Bogart onscreen holding a conversation with a young child (Trina’s daughter Anya, played by Lora Lee Michel)?
The film also serves as a strange type of “What if?” picture compared with Casablanca (1942). As with Rick Blaine’s isolation in that film, Barrett finds himself in the same type of dilemma in Tokyo Joe: an American who can’t leave without giving up what he really wants, his wife Trina. A song also serves as a reminder of misery of each Bogart character, “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca, and “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” from Toyko Joe. (In his appreciation on this disc, Bertrand Tavernier makes the case for “These Foolish Things” being the better song.) Yet the more intriguing question remains: What if Rick had changed his mind at the end of Casablanca, come after Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and stood up to Victor Lazlo (Paul Heinreid)?
On the not-so-great side, Toyko Joe is quite bigoted, portraying most of its Japanese characters as little more than rank stereotypes. Also Bogart was not happy with the casting of Florence Marly as Trina. Marly is visually striking, but lifeless and uninteresting in the role. The sequence of events leading up to the picture’s finale (and the finale itself) go out on a limb that’s nearly completely sawed off.
Despite the film’s problems, I enjoyed it, but the real treasures of the Tokyo Joe disc can be found in its supplements:
Audio commentary with writer and film historian Nora Fiore (aka The Nitrate Diva)
Fiore takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour of the people behind the film, the production history, and much more. This is a tremendous commentary you shouldn’t miss.
Bertrand Tavernier on Tokyo Joe (2017, 33 min.)
Tavernier, while recognizing the picture's limitations, champions both the film and its director Stuart Heisler, explaining why the director was so misunderstood and hard to pin down stylistically. Tavernier’s knowledge of cinema was vast (which is only one of the reasons he’s missed since his passing last year), and he says a tremendous amount about Tokyo Joe and more in just over half an hour.
A Superstar Returns (2022, 15 min.)
If all you know of Sessue Hayakawa comes from his performance as Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), you’re in for a surprise. Hayakawa was a major film star in the silent era, and this tribute by archivist Tom Vincent is a welcome addition to the disc.
Second unit photography (1948, 11 min.)
As mentioned above, a valuable look at postwar Tokyo.
The Negro Soldier (1944, 41 min.)
Jim Pines on The Negro Soldier (2010, 41 min.)
This short, commissioned by the U.S. War Department as a recruiting film for African American enlistees, was directed by Stuart Heisler and stands as a fascinating work that was enormously daring for its time. Heisler actually inherited the project and decided to hold nothing back, not only in directing it, but also in depicting the contribution of African Americans throughout U.S. history. Carlton Moss, who wrote the script, also portrays the preacher in the film. As an added bonus, viewers have the option of a commentary track by author and lecturer Jim Pines, who discusses the history and importance of the film as well as other films featuring African Americans such as Home of the Brave (1949), Buck and the Preacher (1972) and more.
The selection here is fewer than the previous two films (only 30), but generally of better quality.
Tokyo Joe contains the collection’s best supplementary features thus far. These are all extras worth watching and rewatching.
Next: Sirocco (1951)
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