PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE is war propaganda first and foremost. There is no question where the sympathies of the filmmakers lie. Directed by Michael Curtiz 2 years after making CASABLANCA, Curtiz borrows a few similar themes using some of the same actors. Where CASABLANCA was moviemaking at it's finest...PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE fails to produce the same kind of magic as the earlier film. I applaud the effort though.
The problem may be that this film is at least 90% backstory - that is, it is told mostly in flashbacks. Not only that, but you have flashback within flashback within flashback within flashback (if i counted correctly). I suppose if you structure your film in such a fashion - you better have one hell of a finale...and PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE tries to do just that - but I feel it just falls short of the goal.
Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains) heads a squadron of bombers composed of French expatriates based in England. The squadron flies bombing missions over Germany. After a mission - one of the bombers on occasion would make a detour and fly over the farm where the wife and child of one of the crew members live. Gunner Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart) would drop a canister containing a letter for his wife, Paula (Michele Morgan). She would eagerly run outside upon hearing the bomber in anticipation of her husband's dropping the letters.
When a british journalist (John Loder) arrives meaning to write a story on the French fliers - Captain Freycinet obliges the writer by providing the first of a series of flashbacks involving (for one) the crew of a freighter plying the waters of the Atlantic just prior to the start of WWII...(and secondly) a group of men serving time at the prison camps in the jungles of French Guiana.
PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE definitely lacks the witty humor of CASABLANCA - nor are the characters as endearing. Claude Rains' character here, Captain Freycinet pales in comparison to his wonderfully realized Captain Renault in CASABLANCA.
Humphrey Bogart's Jean Matrac may just be as conflicted as Rick - but Matrac certainly lacks Rick Blaine's charisma. Matrac will certainly test the viewer's loyalties when he makes a decisive and brutal moral decision near the climax of the film.
It's interesting that Michelle Morgan plays opposite Humphrey Bogart here. The French actress was the original choice to play Ilsa in CASABLANCA, before her salary demands handed Ingrid Bergman the role. One of the flashbacks here is even similar to the Paris flashback in CASABLANCA.
PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE is an interesting watch with excellent production values but pales in comparison to the greatness of CASABLANCA, which it tries to emulate in theme and emotions.
7 / 10