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teaser Sirocco (1951)

Throughout its history, American cinema has revolved around certain themes, devices, and structures that reflect not only successful, repeatable formulas but also certain perceptions of the national character. One of the most common and potent of these is that of the reluctant hero - a loner, usually out for his own personal gain or safety, who is drawn unwillingly into a struggle whose outcome will greatly affect the future of other individuals and sometimes the whole world. And there's usually an impossible love interest involved. We see it in the Western Shane (1953), in Harrison Ford's Han Solo in Star Wars (1977), even in comedies like Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973). The most successful and striking example of this type of film has to be Casablanca (1942). In that picture, the non-committal hero stands in for a nation reluctant to get involved in the affairs of foreign countries at war with each other. And he's embodied by Humphrey Bogart, an actor who virtually defines the type; a supremely self-interested cynic that we know we can count on to do the right thing when push comes to shove. Bogart played this kind of character a number of times in films with rather different settings and storylines - To Have and Have Not (1944), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951). So Sirocco (1951) can be forgiven for bearing more than a passing resemblance to Casablanca, down to the beautiful and ultimately unavailable love interest, the official papers everyone needs to get out of the city, the sleazy profiteers and double dealers, and the final, noble sacrifice.

In Sirocco, Bogart plays a black marketeer in 1925 Syria who sells guns to a rebel force battling the French occupiers of Damascus and the surrounding area. Nabbed by Col. Feroud, head of the French Intelligence Corps, Bogart is released after reluctantly agreeing to sell his weapons exclusively to the French. In the meantime, possibly motivated by revenge, he romances Feroud's girlfriend Violette and tries to help her escape to Cairo. Feroud bribes Bogart with a pass to leave the city if he will act as a go-between in Feroud's efforts to make peace with the Syrian rebels. But a kink in the plan and a change of heart leads Bogart to go beyond his deal with the French and take a more active part in rescuing those involved - at a great personal price.

Sirocco was produced by Bogart's company Santana (which was also the name of his yacht) and something of a disappointment for the actor. Bogart had left Warner Brothers and formed the new company to make better films and have more control over his career. Although at least one of the handful of movies produced by Santana is now highly regarded - In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray - none of the others were very successful either critically or commercially at the time of their release. Sirocco must have carried its own bitter edge for Bogart with so many reviewers comparing it unfavorably to Casablanca, one of his biggest hits for Warner Brothers.

Others involved in the production had their own reasons to remember it less than fondly. Scripter A.I. Bezzerides, whose greatest success came later with the Mickey Spillane thriller Kiss Me Deadly (1955), had contributed to the scripts for two previous Bogart films, They Drive By Night (1940) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943), so the star trusted his work. But Bezzerides had to step in on Curtis Bernhardt's behalf when Bogart's partner, producer Robert Lord, threatened to fire the German-born director for undisclosed reasons. Perhaps it was because Bernhardt, who made his name at Warners with hit melodramas for such stars as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Ann Sheridan, was not primarily an action director. Or maybe it was because he grumbled openly about not being allowed to film on location in Damascus.

Yet, despite Bernhardt's aggravations, Sirocco managed to deliver on its premise as a spy thriller with a twisting plot and as a period thriller with a dark, apparently amoral hero at its center. There are some characteristic Bogart moments, as when he responds to criticism about his lack of political convictions: "I've had them - they're left behind in America with my first wife." And there's an observation from Marta Toren as the love interest that defines Bogart's physical image and offbeat appeal: "You're so ugly. How can a man so ugly be so handsome?" The movie also features an early performance by Zero Mostel, who must have thought his ship had come in that year. Offered a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox, the relative newcomer (Sirocco was his third film) appeared in five movies released in 1951. It was a short-lived success, however. Mostel became a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist and did not appear in another movie until A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Producer: Robert Lord
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides, Hans Jacoby, based on the novel Coup de Grace by Joseph Kessel
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Editing: Viola Lawrence
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Original Music: George Antheil
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Smith), Marta Toren (Violette), Lee J. Cobb (Col. Feroud), Everett Sloane (Gen. LaSalle), Zero Mostel (Balukjian), Onslow Stevens (Emir Hassan)

by Rob Nixon

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