Huston: Across the Pacific (1942)
John Huston didn’t direct the entirety of his third film, departing before he could complete the finale to work for the United States Signal Army Corps, and leaving Vincent Sherman to add the concluding touches. Even if Huston had finished Across the Pacific, however,I t would probably still have felt somewhat generically indeterminate, shifting and morphing between genres before ending up with a startling forerunner to the classic action films of the 1970s and 1980s. In part, that’s because the film was based on a Saturday Evening Post Story, “Aloha Means Goodbye,” written by Robert Carson in 1942, meaning that screenwriter Richard Macauley has to include a fair amount of padding to generate a feature-length film. But it’s also because Across the Pacific often plays as a sustained riff on Humphrey Bogart’s two most iconic roles – to date – in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, especially since Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet are the other two top billed actors. The references to those two films are very pronounced, from Bogart’s character’s name of Rick, to his observation to Alberta Marlow, Astor’s character, that “you’re good, angel – you’re very, very good,” a direct citation of one of the most iconic lines from The Maltese Falcon. So keen is the film to reference the poses, gestures and delivery of these earlier films that it occasionally comes at the expense of its own atmosphere, even if the unusual and uncertain tone eventually paves the way for one of the most unsettling endings to a 1940s war movie.
For the first act of Across the Pacific, however, the tone is consistently in the vein of what would become noir, as we start with Rick receiving a dishonourable discharge from the army, forced to shed his military apparel and don Bogart’s trademark fedora and overcoat instead. Although he’s persona non grata in the United States, Rick applies with the Canadian military – Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry – a prospect that is already presented as pretty emasculating before Rick is once again rejected here. From there, he boards a ship bound for New York, Panama, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Yokohama, a trajectory that traces out the uneasy proximity between the United States and Japan that had emerged following the bombing of Pearl Harbor less than a year before the film was released. The ship only intensifies the noir mood of the open act, thanks to the low ceilings, cramped quarters and striated light in every space, as well as the misty, moody and gloomy atmosphere on deck. Most of the life of the ship seems to happen at night, especially once they hit the open ocean, setting the stage for a sombre espionage thriller once it emerges that Rick has not actually been discharged, but is working undercover for the United States government. Specifically, Rick is tasked with assessing the two other Western travelers on the ship, Alberta Marlow (Astor) and Dr. Lorenz (Sydney Greenstreet), a professor of sociology in the Phillipines, to see whether they might be involved in an impending attack from the Pacific.
Throughout these early scenes, Across the Pacific is the first of Huston’s films to showcase lavish exterior tableaux, long tracking shots, and extended procedural sequences, most of which are used to detail images of machinery and mechanical processes, as if trying to capture the scope of the war and the looming presence of the Pacific in a series of discrete shots. Inside, too, the compositions are far more elaborate and ambitious than in his first two films, often orchestrated around portholes and drawn out by the cramped quarters of the ship. In possibly the most striking sequence of the film, those two tendencies combine, as Rick takes all manner of detours – going in and out of the subway, going up the elevator of a skyscraper and then coming back down the stairs – to avoid being trailed in New York, in an intensified version of the surveillance sequences that give The Maltese Falcon so much of its rhythm. At times, it feels as if Huston is trying to situate the film within the same expansive space as the tarmac that concludes Casablanca, partly because of the sense of hope and scope that finale offers, but also because of its figurative limitations, its awareness that the next part of the war can’t be known, which suits the depiction of Pearl Harbor here.
All in all, then, these early scenes establish as many noir tropes as The Maltese Falcon, while cementing another one: xenophobia, especially Orientalist xenophobia. That fear of foreigners is tacitly present in The Maltese Falcon, in the form of the falcon itself, an incursion of the Middle East into the San Francisco, personified by the figure of Joel Cairo, whose name immediately signals him as part of the same Middle Eastern matrix, even if his nationality is European, just as his effete homoeroticism makes it clear that he is exotic in a more pronounced way than a European ever could be. Over the course of noir, this fear of the Orient would cement into a particular distrust of Japanese men, who were often framed as agents of effeminisation, both in their supposed demonstration of how effeminate men could be, but also in their suggestion of a new world order in which the United States would be emasculated and suppressed. Coming shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Across the Pacific is peculiarly invested in this trope, especially since Rick, Alberta and Lorenz are the only Western people on board a ship that is entirely populated by Japanese men. While Rick and Alberta might quickly engage in a screwball romance, it never quite lands, partly because it’s bereft of a white audience, or enough white third parties to deflect and refract their rapport, in the manner of so much screwball comedy. Since he’s often drunk, and she’s often seasick, their romance soon takes on a lopsided quality that’s just a bit too screwy to be properly suspenseful, but just a touch too suspenseful to ever be properly screwy either.
In part, that’s because Rick suspects that Alberta may be part of the plot he has been charged to investigate, as may Lorenz, who has worked in the Philippines for most of his life, and tries to insinuate his pro-Japanese views into Rick’s outlook. Yet while these images of American betrayal might be disturbing, the most suspicious character in the film is easily Sam Wing On, played by Lee Tung Foo, the only Japanese American on board. It’s appropriate that the one Japanese American character, the only person with a Japanese appearance who speaks with an American accent, is named after Bogart’s character in The Maltese Falcon, just as Bogart is here named after his character in Casablanca. From the moment he appears, Sam is presented as a particular threat to Rick’s masculinity, and as someone Rick has to define himself against at all cost, even or especially as he seems like the most friendly and accommodating character in the film so far as well. In fact, he is the only man on the boat, apart from Rick, with an American accent full stop, meaning that his presence forms an immediate affront to Rick’s awareness of himself as a white American, forcing him to identify with that subject position in ways he had previously taken for granted. Even at his most charming, Sam’s face is offset by his absurdly thick glasses, which are set in round frames, and make it look like he is continually trying to make his eyes look Western, and pass for white, a trait that for the film is synonymous with extreme deception.
In other words, Across the Pacific traffics in the same logic that led to Japanese American interment camps during WWII. Opponents to the camps argued that the dual nationality of Japanese Americans made them less suspicious, but of course this dual nationality was precisely what was most questionable – or perhaps simply inconceivable – to conservative forces within the American government. For that reason, Huston’s third film often plays like a piece of propaganda, a guide for how to distinguish Japanese Americans from Japanese people, and a reminder that Japanese Americans are even more dangerous, since they are already inside the country, already part of the system. In that respect, it’s a sorry companion piece to The Battle of San Pietro, and Huston’s other war documentaries, which were notable for their critical distance on the damages inflicted by WWII. It’s also a sorry sequel to Huston’s previous film, In This Our Life, which played as a critique of precisely the unquestioned racist assumptions that escalate as the ship makes its way towards Panama.
Even Dr. Lorenz, the avowed Orientalist, and supporter of Japanese supremacy, has little good to say about the Nisei, or first generation of Japanese Americans, observing that “they form a very small fraction, fortunately” of the wider Japanese population. While Japan and America might differ, ideologically, the one thing they can really agree on, as the film puts it, is the importance of racial purity, leaving Japanese-Americans stranded between both sides, which of course makes them ideologically suspicious to each. That obsession with racial purity, and the purity of whiteness, is also present in Rick’s romance with Alberta, which is peculiarly fixated with colour, and all the colourful epithets he can bestow upon her: “First your legs turn blue, then your face goes green, now you’re red all over.” It is as if, as the only white couple on board, they have to define themselves in terms of every colour but yellow, just as their romantic banter tends to occur as the expense of the Japanese crew and passengers around them. That may explain why their romance is so atonal, and why it seems to have so little charisma on its own terms, as they both delight in presenting the Japanese as bumbling, foolish and – perhaps most importantly – capable of being domesticated by Western condescension: “The Japanese make great servants – wonderful little people, greatly misunderstood.” Understandably, the littleness of Bogart, and his diminutive stature, becomes a particular source of anxiety here, as Huston does his utmost to ensure that the low ceilings and cramped quarters of the ship make Rick look tall by comparison, and taller than the Japanese. Similarly, Huston tends to shoot Bogart from a low, subservient angle whenever he is alone in the frame, evoking an adoring, submissive and envious Japanese gaze for whom Bogart is just as tall – if not taller – than the next man.
Those anxieties all crystallise once the ship arrives at the Panama Canal, and Rick realises that Alberta and Lorenz are indeed part of a Japanese conspiracy. For the rest of the film, Panama stands in for Pearl Harbor, distracting the audience from the vulnerability of the American navy at Pearl Harbor, but also redirecting that vulnerability to a space that can be more actively monitored, partly because it is further from Japan, and partly because the influx of the Pacific is much more contained and confined here. For that fantasy to work, however, Panama, and especially the Cristobal Canal Zone, where the action unfolds, has to be presented as a part of Asia, and as continuous with Japan. Unusually, the only people we see in Panama are American and Asian, since there’s not a trace of indigenous Panamanians, or people of Spanish descent, which creates a fantastic and exotic image of the Orient that feels very attuned to the various ciphers for Vietnam that would come to dominate 1970s and 1980s action cinema. In a dissonant figurative gesture, Panama is framed here as both the first threshold of the Orient, but also as deeply embedded within the Orient, a dissonance that refracts the trauma of Pearl Habor itself, where the American threshold to the Orient turned out to be more deeply embedded within the Japanese military reach than Americans could possibly have imagined. By redirecting the Pearl Harbor attack into this Panamanian narrative, Across the Pacific offers the audience a consolatory fantasy – that all the signs of a Japanese attack were in place before the Pearl Harbor strike, meaning that the destruction of the American navy could hypothetically have been avoided.
In that sense, Across the Pacific is quite similar to films made about the World Trade Centre in the years following the 9/11 attacks. As with 9/11, there’s a sense here that Pearl Harbor can’t yet be fully visualised, or conceptualized, so drastically has it breached America’s sense of itself. Even From Here to Eternity, the first major film to be set during the Pearl Harbor strike, couldn’t look at the disaster head on, but had to approach it obliquely, through the lens of melodrama. Half a century later, the kitsch spectacle of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor tried to reinvest Hollywood history with a direct representation of the attack that it never really had at the time, only for Bay’s own classicist approach to eventually turn inwards and insular, and so dissociate itself from any direct connection to history. In effect, Pearl Harbor captured the impossibility of making a film about Pearl Harbour fifty years later, placing Huston’s film at an even more unbearable figurative juncture as it tries, for the first time, to introduce the Japanese attack into the lexicon of American cinema. While Huston left the production a bit later, it feels as if Huston’s command of the material is starting to falter a bit here, if only because the action becomes so compressed and rushed from this point onwards. Even as the plot threads start to wrap up, it feels as if Across the Pacific should have more in it – more time – just as there should have been more time for Americans to prepare for Pearl Harbor, producing a conclusion in which Bogart temporarily slips into an antecedent to Stallone, Arnie and all the other action bodies of the 70s and 80s.
No surprise, then, that Rick is quite physically vulnerable in these final scenes, as he traces out the different threads of the conspiracy before making his way to a remote patch of jungle to take down the Japanese plan tasked with bombing the American barracks in Panama. Not only does his diminutive stature return once he leaves the ship, but he is emasculated by a judo demonstration from Sam moments before he is about to relish punching his Japanese American nemesis in the face. Indeed, the denouement starts with a setup from Sam, who recommends that Rick meet an informant in a movie theatre, only to ambush him with a collection of Japanese assassins. Even before these assassins arrive, however, Rick feels out of place in this theatre, which is playing a Japanese feature for a Japanese audience, and features the densest passage of untranslated Japanese in the entire film. When the assassins do arrive, their pursuit of Rick takes them through the whole theatre, from the audience to the space behind the screen, threatening him not merely with death, but with the impotence of American cinema to properly conceptualise or visualise the attack they are planning. In this stunning sequence, Pearl Harbor becomes a dismantling of the American cinema as much as the American military, proof that America simply didn’t have the spectacular infrastructure to imagine, let alone prevent, the Japanese onslaught.
The last part of Across the Pacific sets about re-establishing this spectacular infrastructure in quite a remarkable and visceral way. From the cinema, we cut to Rick traversing the jungle, as the first American apprehension of planes descending on Pearl Harbor is now channeled and condensed into the solitary plane that Bogart encounters in the midst of the wilderness. While this plane may be bombing Panama, it is staffed and manned by Japanese men, making it a clear cipher for the aircrafts that flew in over Honolulu less than twelve months before. Similarly, while this plane may be targeting a critical lock in the Panama Canal, rather than a base on American soil, the figurative import is the same – flooding the Pacific into the Atlantic, and the powers of the Pacific into a realm traditionally commandeered by America and her allies. Like the 9/11 attacks, the Pearl Harbor attack came from such a remote distance, and struck in such an unexpected way, that it initially seemed to defy any clear sense of agency. Like films made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, too, Across the Pacific compensates for this situation by crafting an alternative narrative in which the attack can now be apprehended, both tactically and perceptually, by the right kind of masculinity.
The last part of Across the Pacific therefore condenses to a standoff between Rick and Sam, with the Japanese plane as collateral. Just as Sam appropriated Bogart’s name in Casablanca, he now appropriates the hard-boiled lexicon that Bogart had already made his own (“He stinks”). With noir absorbed into precisely the Oriental voice it defines itself against, all vestiges of noir vanish from the film at this point, morphing Across the Pacific into an entirely new genre to articulate itself, one that didn’t even exist yet, and wouldn’t fully exist until the rise of action cinema in the wake of Vietnam. What unfolds now plays as pure fantasy, as Rick gets revenge for the earlier judo move by using an American pistol as a martial arts device, in order to bring down the last Japanese soldier standing between him and Sam. From there he makes his way to an absurdly enormous gun, light years from the efficient pistols of noir, which he uses to take down the Japanese plane before it can climb too high in the air. Throughout the film, Rick has repeatedly joked with Lorenz that “my gun is bigger than yours,” but it becomes clear now that his phallic potency isn’t really directed at Lorenz – who isn’t that much of a threat to his masculinity – but to the Japanese powers that Lorenz so admires, along with the Japanese-American convergence that he represents.
For a moment, this whole tableau – Bogart’s small stature paired with the enormous gun, the jungle backdrop, the slight cheesiness that takes over Bogart’s diction – flickers into a vision of Rambo and his escalating arsenals, which defined the evolution of the classic action film more than any other image. It is as if the sheer attempt to imagine and visualise Pearl Harbour has migrated Across the Pacific into a genre that doesn’t exist yet, suggesting, in turn, that the potency of the classic action film partly depended on the inability of American spectacle to ever properly resolve Pearl Harbor, even after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it is that visceral need for spectacle, and insistence on American spectacle, that finally makes the end of Across the Pacific so similar in tone and ambience to the classic action film. When Rick is trapped in the cinema, his plight doesn’t just capture the impotence of American spectacle, but the fear that Japanese spectacle has already exceeded it. Through the unimaginable prospect of Pearl Harbour, the American cinema seems to regard itself, and its own limitations, in this haunting scene, meaning that the showdown in the jungle feels like American cinema itself fighting for its own spectacular supremacy. That sense that cinema itself, and spectacle itself, had dissociated from any one director or agenda to wage a war against foreign cinema, and foreign spectacle, was the hallmark of the classic action film – what gives it such visceral urgency and intensity – and it receives one of its key foundations here, in one of the oddest films in Huston’s early career.
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