Passage to Marseille (1944): Michael Curtiz’s WWII Tale, Follow-Up to Casablanca, Starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet

Humphrey Bogart reunites with director Michael Curtiz and other key Casablanca personnel, including co-stars Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, in Passage to Marseille, also known as Message to Marseille, war film made by Warner Brothers.
Grade: B

Other actors connected to both productions included Michèle Morgan, who had been the original choice for the lead in Casablanca; Victor Francen, Philip Dorn, Corinna Mura, and George Tobias.

The screenplay was by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt from the novel Sans Patrie (“Men Without Country”) by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.

The music score was by Max Steiner and the cinematography was by James Wong Howe.

Passage to Marseille uses flashback within flashback, within a flashback, just like the narrative structure of the novel on which it is based.

The tale opens at an airbase in England during WWII, when Free French Captain Freycinet tells a journalist the story of the French pilots stationed there.

The second flashback is at the French prison colony at Cayenne in French Guiana. The third flashback sets the scene where Matrac, a newspaper publisher, is framed for murder to silence him.

In 1942, journalist Manning arrives at an English air base to learn about the Free French fighting the Germans. Along with Captain Freycinet, he watches as French bomber crews prepare to raid.

Manning’s interest focuses on Jean Matrac, a gunner, and Freycinet describes Matrac’s story: Two years earlier, before the defeat of France, five convicts who escaped from Devil’s Island are found adrift in a small canoe in the Caribbean Sea by the tramp steamer Ville de Nancy. These five–Marius, Garou, Petit, Renault, and their leader, Matrac, are rescued and taken aboard the French freighter commanded by Captain Malo.

Later, confronted by Captain Freycinet, the five confess to being escaped convicts from the French prison colony at Cayenne in French Guiana. They had been recruited by Grandpère, a patriotic ex-convict, to fight for France. The inmates had recounted Matrac’s troubles in pre-war France to convince the old man to choose Matrac to lead the escape

A crusading newspaper publisher, Matrac, being opposed to the Munich Pact, had been framed for murder to shut him up.

By the time the Ville de Nancy nears Marseille, France has surrendered to the Nazis, and collaborationist Vichy government has been set up.

Upon hearing the news, the captain decides not to deliver his valuable cargo to the Germans. Pro-Vichy passenger Major Duval then attempts to seize control of the ship, but is defeated. When they reach England, the convicts join the Free French bomber squadron.

As Freycinet concludes his tale, the squadron returns from its mission. Renault’s bomber is delayed, as Matrac is allowed to drop a letter over his family’s house before returning from each mission.

His wife Paula and their son, whom he has never seen, live in occupied France. Renault’s bomber finally lands, but it had been badly shot up, and Matrac killed.

In the end, Freycinet reads aloud Matrac’s last, undelivered, letter to his son, in which he expresses his vision of the day when evil will be defeated forever.  Freycinet makes a vow that the letter will be delivered.

Principal photography by James Wong Howe actually took place at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, California, with additional shooting in Victorville, California.

Pre-production had been underway for six months, but as a result of resisting Warner’s decision to cast him in Conflict (released 1945, but shot in 1943), his role as Matrac was in jeopardy; French actor Jean Gabin was considered as replacement. But even when casting was settled, Bogart’s portrayal was hampered by marital difficulties and lack of commitment to the project.

The flying sequences show the Free French Air Force (FAFL) using Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. The production took liberties with the actual bombing campaigns by the Free French units, that employed medium bombers such as the Martin B-26 Marauder. The use of the ubiquitous B-17 was based on the fact that it was recognizable to American audiences.

There was controversy about the scene in which Matrac machine-guns the helpless survivors of a downed plane, which had attacked the freighter. That a soldier of freedom would act ignobly brought protests from various religious and censorship groups. As a result, the scene was cut by the censors when the movie was released in some foreign markets.

A decent commercial hit, the film benefited from the timing of its release, earning $2,157,000 domestically and $1,629,000 in foreign countries.

Humphrey Bogart as Jean Matrac
Claude Rains as Captain Freycinet
Michèle Morgan as Paula Matrac
Philip Dorn as Renault
Sydney Greenstreet as Major Duval
Peter Lorre as Marius
George Tobias as Petit
Helmut Dantine as Garou
John Loder as Manning
Victor Francen as Captain Patain Malo
Vladimir Sokoloff as Grandpère
Eduardo Ciannelli as Chief Engineer
Corinna Mura as Singer

Uncredited Cast

Konstantin Shayne as 1st Mate
Stephen Richards as Lt. Hastings
Charles La Torre as Lt. Lenoir
Hans Conried as Jourdain
Monte Blue as 2nd Mate
Billy Roy as Mess Boy
Frederick Brunn as Bijou
Louis Mercier as 2nd Engineer

DVD Special Features:

Warner Night at the Movies 1944 short subjects gallery:
Vintage newsreel
Oscar-winning patriotic short, “I Wont Play,” and Oscar nominee, “Jammin the Blues.”
Classic cartoon “The Weakly Reporter.”
Trailers of Passage to Marseille and 1944’s Uncertain Glory
New featurette The Free French: Forgotten Unsung Victors
Breakdowns of 1944: Studio Blooper Reel