Just think of the concept: Humphrey Bogart, an exotic location, gun-runners, freedom fighters, black marketeers, a love triangle, and a beautiful femme fatale. Sounds like a sure fire winner, right? I mean, it should be a given that throwing all these elements into the mix would produce a memorable movie, maybe even a bona fide classic. Superficially, it may seem like I’m referring to Casablanca; unfortunately, I’m not. No, what I’m talking about is Sirocco (1951), a poor, distant relation of Michael Curtiz’s much loved film. Now I count myself a big fan of Bogart, I even like those one dimensional thugs and heavies he played during the late 1930s, but Sirocco is a movie I really struggle to take anything positive from.
The story takes place in Damascus in 1925, during the period of French control. The end of WWI saw the carving up of the old Ottoman Empire, with modern day Syria being governed by France under a mandate from the League of Nations. But these are troubled times, and the nights are filled with the sounds of sporadic small arms fire as the Syrians launch periodic attacks against the occupying army. In the wake of one such attack, which has wiped out yet another patrol, the French military commander decides to crack down hard on the insurrection. Despite a tight blockade, shipments of weapons are making their way into the rebels’ hands. It is the task of Intelligence chief Colonel Feroud (Lee J Cobb) to halt this traffic, and this means rounding up the top black marketeers. Harry Smith (Bogart) is an American with a chequered past who uses his food imports as a cover for the more lucrative business of running guns into Damascus. While Feroud stalks Smith through the serpentine passages and subterranean catacombs of the ancient city, the relationship between the two men becomes further complicated by the fact that both have fallen under the spell of the beautiful, yet shallow and self-obsessed, Violette (Marta Toren). With the French troops hot on his heels, Smith finds himself a fugitive in a city of curfews and hastily organized ambushes. Just when escape to Egypt and safety seems within his grasp, Harry Smith finds that fate has one more twist to serve up.
Throughout the ’40s Bogie was the very epitome of weary cynicism, the poster boy of film noir. Those hangdog features and his lisping delivery were perfect for expressing the pessimism and disillusionment of the time. However, his portrayal of Harry Smith is almost too weary and cynical for its own good. For the first hour or so we see a man without a shred of decency, a man who would sell out anybody or anything as long as the price was right. In itself, that’s not a problem, although there is only the vaguest hint given of what led him to this. The bigger problem is that in the final twenty minutes the viewer is expected to buy the notion of this self-serving profiteer undergoing a change of heart, and laying everything on the line in order to save the life of the man who has hounded him. In short, it doesn’t work; the character shift is too great and too abrupt to be believable. Lee J Cobb does better as the soldier whose conscience drives him to place his life in danger, and whose honor and bravery contrasts sharply with the venal amorality of Harry Smith. Marta Toren certainly looks good as the faithless Violette, but her character is a deeply unattractive one; after a horrendous bombing incident in a crowded bar, her only concern is for the damage inflicted on her dress and stockings. In truth, her role doesn’t serve any particular purpose except to add an edge to the rivalry between Smith and Feroud. In supporting parts, there’s some good work done by Everett Sloane, Zero Mostel and Nick Dennis. Curtis Bernhardt directs competently enough but the story plods in places and is only lifted by the camerawork of Burnett Guffey, who creates some atmospheric shots in the shadowy alleys and catcombs. It’s in these scenes that the film is most effective and they save it from being a complete failure.
Sirocco is available on DVD from Columbia in an excellent transfer. The print used doesn’t seem to have any damage and there’s a healthy, but not excessive, amount of natural looking film grain. Extras are limited to galleries of promotional material. The film was made for Bogie’s own production company Santana, which he set up after leaving Warners. The company made only a handful of pictures and, with the exception of In a Lonely Place, none of them set the world alight. Sirocco isn’t so much a bad film as a run of the mill one, a formula piece that’s never especially involving. One for real Bogart fans, and even they will likely endure it rather than enjoy it.