Joe Barrett sure knows how to woo 'em.
Humphrey Bogart made some doozies in the late Forties and early Fifties. He liked to keep working, but either he or his agent had some lousy taste: Chain Lighting (1950). Sirocco (1951). Battle Circus (opposite June Allyson, no less) (1953). Tokyo Joe fits right in. It's not just that these movies are hackwork, but Bogart's iconic mug is showing his age. He was 50 when he made Tokyo Joe. He can snarl, threaten, sneer and go wooing with the best, better, in fact, than the best, but it's Silly Symphonies when he undertakes judo or throws more than one or two punches.
With Tokyo Joe we're not just talking stunt doubles. Every shot in Tokyo with a guy in a trench coat wearing a hat where we can't see a face is a fake Bogart. There are a lot of them. Every shot of Bogart facing the camera with Tokyo in the background is just Bogart on a Hollywood sound stage with backscreen projection. There are a lot more of these. All that backscreen stuff is handled carelessly.
Like most strong actors, Bogart worked best, in my opinion, when he had strong actors to react with. Tokyo Joe doesn't give him much. Florence Marly is the love interest. She's beautiful, but so icy she could give your lips frostbite. Alexander Knox (Mark Landis), who competes for Florence Marly, was a fine actor, but always so civilized, often stuffy, sometimes weak.
What's it all about? Bogie as Joe Barrett returns to Tokyo right after fighting in the last good war to check on the gambling bar, Tokyo Joe's, which he used to own. He'd always felt Tokyo was his home. It's a sad homecoming. The woman he'd married, Trina Pechinkov (Marly), a White Russian émigré in Japan, he'd heard was dead. Instead, she'd been imprisoned. But now she's remarried to Occupation big shot Mark Landis...and she has a daughter. You guessed it, the child is Bogie's and he hadn't known. He wants Trina back. He hooks up with Baron Kimura (Sessue Hayakawa) to start a two-bit freight airline so he can stay in Tokyo and woo Trina away from Landis. From now on we're going to be in a world of deceit, the importing of Japanese war criminals back to Japan, of Bogart wearing a leather flight jacket, fist fights, bowing and ah so-ing, corny patriotic speeches, a precocious child who gets kidnapped...and sacrifice designed to bring a tear or two. The tension between Bogart and Alexander Knox is non-existent. So are the love sparks between Bogart and Marly. Sessue Hayakawa (who was a huge silent screen star in American movies) has a Japanese accent when he speaks his English lines that is so thick it's sometimes difficult to understand the full extent of the Baron's evil plans.
That leaves just Bogart to carry the film. He nearly does it...he wasn't Hollywood's most iconic movie star for nothing. (At best, the top icon probably would be a three-way tie with Bogart, Cary Grant and Mickey Mouse.) He even manages to make us forget the tyke he shares some scenes with. On balance, you'll enjoy Bogart, but Tokyo Joe is a movie to keep low on your list of Bogart movies to watch.
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