Conflict

Film noir meets Freud, presented as an inverted mystery. I suppose that just about sums up what viewers can reasonably expect to take away from Conflict (1945). It might also be helpful to keep in mind that this is a movie where plausibility is going to be stretched. In short, if you are the type of person who balks at the unashamed use of contrivance, who yearns for grit and realism, then this almost certainly is not the film for you. On the other hand, those looking for a relatively undemanding confection that plays around the periphery of film noir will probably enjoy themselves.

There is something quintessentially noir about rain. Perhaps it’s down to the heavy, brooding skies, swollen and sullen with the weight within, or that sense of some indefinable force lashing at us. Or maybe it’s just the way the cinematic version seems to smear and blur the lens, leaving our perception of characters and situations, and indeed the entire ethical universe laid out before us, a little unclear. Such is the case as the credits roll, just before the camera zeroes in on the finishing touches being added to a letter of invitation to Richard and Kathryn Mason (Humphrey Bogart and Rose Hobart). It’s from their friend Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet) on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary. Even if it’s a couple of years early, Richard Mason is already starting to feel that famed extramarital itch, in this case prompted by the presence of his wife’s younger sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith). This unsavory fact has just been hauled out in the open and so it’s with a certain sourness that the couple, and the unsuspecting sibling, head off for a night of food, drink and the kind of brittle civility that only the well-heeled and dissatisfied can carry off with aplomb. Well, having dined under a cloud of charmingly concealed bitterness, the drive back home is interrupted by an accident that segues into one of those sequences that has the protagonist’s thoughts and experiences reflected through the images and words of others, spinning as a vortex before the camera, drawing both him and us ever deeper.

On awakening, as the faces of doctor and nurse swim into view, we learn that Richard was the only one who suffered any significant injury. While recuperating from the broken leg that everybody believes has left him temporarily incapacitated, he hatches a plan to rid himself of his wife and leave himself free to pursue Evelyn. It’s no spoiler to point out that this is where the inverted mystery kicks in. We see Richard Mason go about the plotting of his wife’s demise and then get to see the gradual chipping away at his confidence, the doubts that circle and creep ever nearer till, finally, he can no longer be entirely sure how firm his grip on reality or sanity is. It is somehow fitting that he is drawn down into the darkness and despair of a literal and figurative abyss to confront his guilt and culpability before heading back towards the light, back to the fate he richly deserves.

Conflict is derived from a story entitled The Pentacle, co-written by Alfred Neumann and Robert Siodmak. Siodmak’s name is enough to catch my attention, although I suppose it was mainly the casting of Bogart that drew me to the movie when I first saw it some time back in the mid-1980s. As with most inverted mysteries, much of the enjoyment lies in seeing how the best laid plans can unravel, and the clue that first sets the hounds on Mason’s trail grows out of a delicious slice of hubris. Curtis Bernhardt would have a very strong run of melodramas and films noir from My Reputation right through to Payment on Demand, although I reckon Sirocco (also with Bogart) is a misfire. His direction here is impressive at times, with a few showy tracking shots to pulls the audience into the picture, and of course the set piece of the murder on the twisty and mist shrouded mountain pass.

It has been said that Bogart was not keen on the film and was actually reluctant to make it, but he gives a fairly solid performance for all that. He is good at getting across the abrasive and impatient aspects of his character, and the transition from cocksure killer to desperate paranoiac is well realized. The only point at which I felt he hammed it up and lost some credibility was the scene where he tries to emotionally browbeat Alexis Smith, and even there one could perhaps argue that the whole point was to highlight the driven creepiness of Mason. Alexis Smith seems a bit wasted in a role that asks her to do little more than wring her hands on cue and prevaricate, none of which is the fault of the actress herself. Conversely, Rose Hobart is given a juicier part with at least some wounded pride and suspicion to sustain her, but her screen time is necessarily limited. Sydney Greenstreet is never less than a joy to watch in anything and his sympathetic part as the avuncular doctor with a piercing, probing intelligence and a penchant for cultivating roses feels like a dry run for his later role on radio as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe – just remove the avuncular aspect and swap out the roses for orchids. Charles Drake would go on to do better things in the 1950s at Universal-International but his young suitor in Conflict never rises much above the level  of “aw shucks” guilelessness.

Conflict ought to be easy enough to track down for viewing, either from the Warner Archive or from various European labels. It isn’t the best example of Bogart’s work but he’s good enough in it and he is always watchable anyway. Sure the plot is contrived and the whole thing is loaded with the cod psychology which was popular at the time. However, for those happy to embrace these features and just go with the flow there is quite a lot of pleasure and entertainment to be had.

Sirocco

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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.

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Throughout the ’40s Bogart 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.