After his profitable but dire second feature In This Our Life, John Huston went back to his roots with a spy thriller populated by cast members from his debut The Maltese Falcon. Unfortunately Across the Pacific had a troubled production, and while it was a step back in the right direction for Huston, it still only gets by on the strength of its stars and the swift pacing.
In November 1941, Humphrey Bogart’s ex-artilleryman Rick boards a ship traveling from the east coast to China. Also on the ship is Alberta (an underused Mary Astor)—who Rick romances seemingly solely because she’s the only woman aboard—and the mysterious Dr. Lorenz (Sydney Greenstreet, the highlight of the film). Those three are the only white people aboard the Japanese vessel, though the perhaps overly friendly Joe (Victor Sen Yung) is a second-generation Japanese-American and interacts with them as well. As the ship approaches the Panama Canal, Rick learns of a Japanese plot to attack it and decides to intervene.
Based on a story from The Saturday Evening Post, Richard Macaulay’s script was originally about an attack planned for Pearl Harbor (hence the title). The film began shooting in early December 1941, but it didn’t take long until a certain event forced them to make some major changes. With the Panama Canal selected as the updated target, shooting restarted in March 1942. Mary Astor recalled Bogart saying “Let’s hurry and get this thing over with before the Canal goes too.”1
The film has a rushed, first draft quality to it, but it seems the production still didn’t move fast enough. In April Huston was called into service for the Army Signal Corps, where he would make documentaries like San Pietro and Let There Be Light. But the finale still had to be shot, and so Bogart’s All Through the Night director Vincent Sherman took over for the last ten days. Problem was, not only did Huston have no idea how to end the film, he left the characters for Sherman in an inescapable situation.
“I had Bogie tied to a chair,” Huston wrote. “And installed about three times as many Japanese soldiers as were needed to keep him prisoner. There were guards at every window brandishing machine guns. I made it so that there was no way in God’s green world that Bogart could logically escape. I shot the scene, then called Jack Warner and said, ‘Jack, I’m on my way. I’m in the Army. Bogie will know how to get out.’”2 From there the film wraps about as quickly and implausibly as possible, but Sherman felt he did the best that he could. “Listen,” he would say. “If you ask me, we were lucky to get the bastard out of there at all.”3
Worse than the evident production issues however is the hatred directed toward all of the Japanese characters in the film. The film’s racism isn’t exactly shocking, considering how it was rewritten and shot in the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor, and posits the Japanese as the villains for the hero to punch. Bogart complains how “They all look alike,” while the white but Japanese-aligned villain patronizingly refers to them as “wonderful little people.” Worst of all is how Victor Sen Yung’s Joe is presented as the “good” Japanese man, a second-generation Japanese-American who speaks and acts without the stereotypes that the other Asian actors are forced to. Yet in the end Joe is revealed to be another one of the bad guys, suggesting even Asian-American citizens can’t be trusted—and in it’s own way attempting to justify the government internment.
Despite that ugliness, Across the Pacific has fun moments, from the banter between Bogart and Astor’s characters to the lively monologues that Greenstreet delivers throughout. But it still doesn’t live up to the talent Huston showed with The Maltese Falcon—a talent the war would delay him from truly showcasing again until 1948 when The Treasure of the Sierra Madre won him Oscars for Best Director and Screenplay.
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