Beyond Casablanca…In Damascus…Destiny, in a low-cut gown, beckons from the Devil's Doorway!
(Who writes this stuff?!)
When the tag line admits that you're going to draw conclusions with its more famous cousin, Casablanca, that's a good sign Sirocco is not going to measure up. In many respects, Sirocco comes off as a reheated leftover sequel lacking spice and charm. Still, it's got Humphrey Bogart, and that ain't bad!
Facts of the Case
Harry Smith (Humphrey Bogart) is a mysterious ex-American soldier who's found himself a valuable niche in Damascus, Syria circa 1926. Armed with a League of Nations mandate, French troops under the leadership of General LaSalle (Everett Sloane) are fighting a bitter war with freedom minded insurgents led by Emir Hassan (Onslow Stevens). Clearly those an old League of Nations mandate™ is as effective as a new and improved United Nations resolution™.
Bereft of political passions, Harry still sees the merit of cold hard cash in serving as a conduit for the rebels' supplies of arms and ammunition. Harry's attention soon falls upon Violette (Märta Torén), the vivacious yet cold-hearted plaything of French intelligence chief Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb). As Harry vies for Violette's company, soon he must turn to his amorous rival for a pass to escape when Damascus gets too hot to hold. Both Feroud and Harry become involved in a dangerous dance between themselves and the Syrians, and someone is bound to get hurt.
Sirocco, meet mediocrity. Mediocrity, meet Sirocco.
Few actors can avoid the fate of having films on their résumé that they'd rather hurl into the fires of Mordor, but when they achieve a certain level of stardom, their Ishtars are by choice, sadly. Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny) is an actor of such magnitude and mythic proportions, showered with all manner of accolades in life and in death, that it might never cross your mind that he might have chosen to make a stinker.
That might come off far harsher than intended, but Bogart's choice to make Sirocco is a mystery. Comparisons with Casablanca were inevitable (perhaps even invited), with Bogart in a similar role, in an exotic location, caught between warring factions, trying to woo amidst conflict, but Bogart had to figure the odds of Sirocco measuring up were long indeed. Influencing his decision may have been his substantial six-figure salary and his newly formed production company (Santana) getting a cut of the Hollywood gravy. A prosaic explanation, but quite plausible.
Simply put, Sirocco is bereft of charm, romance, and emotional power. Harry Smith is a familiar world-weary role for Bogart (which he does so very well), but with nothing hidden to evoke our sympathy his sudden shift in character at the end of Sirocco comes off as contrived. Worse, lacking any chemistry with Märta Torén, Bogart's romantic pursuits seem cold and flat. Furthermore, with such a chilly, callous mercenary as Violette, why should the audience care how she lives and loves? Frankly, none of the characters in Sirocco claim our emotions, though Harry's temporary friend Balukjiaan (a restrained Zero Mostel) does well with a mixture of humor and pathos.
Aside from the stalwart Humphrey Bogart and Zero Mostel (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, The Producers), praise is due for Lee J. Cobb (The Exorcist, Coogan's Bluff, On the Waterfront). Cobb gives Faroud intimidating and honorable qualities that play well against the quiet amorality of Harry Smith and iciness of Violette.
Filmed with a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (very slightly matted to this 1.33:1 full-frame presentation), the black and white Sirocco has a full-frame presentation that is touted as being "digitally mastered." Not re-mastered, or restored, of course, that would take too much money. Regardless, a film over fifty years old is likely to have a significant collection of battle scars, as Sirocco certainly does. At an early point, the grain becomes so pronounced that the screen seems to crawl with it, but thankfully Sirocco settles down into tolerable territory. Less than crisp and solid blacks make a few portions of the numerous dimly lit scenes more of a challenge than the director intended.
The "digitally mastered audio" (oooh, ahh!) is simply Dolby Digital Mono by another name. Dialogue is clear and adequately done, though as expected mono has little else to say for itself. Say goodnight to your subwoofer!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sadly, Columbia decided to tart up the list of special features to make it look more impressive than it is, rather than actually include genuine extra content. Let's be quite frank: digital mastering, aspect ratio, audio type, subtitles, "interactive menus" (how many NON-interactive menus have you seen?) and scene selection (more or less like breathing for a DVD) are not special features. They are basic features. Back in the very early days of the DVD, this might be a forgivable mistake. Now, in the days of four-disc director's extended cut special editions, this is a mistake that only small children and morons should make.
So what do we have? A four minute trailer for the variety of Bogart films available in the Columbia library, two examples of vintage Sirocco advertising, and trailers for The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Caine Mutiny, and Lawrence of Arabia. Infuriatingly miniscule content, particularly when Columbia wants an outrageous price ($25 list) for a virtually bare-bones disc.
Far from his best or most famous film, Sirocco is well established in the lower tier of the Bogart legacy. That judgment is sadly left undisturbed by Columbia TriStar's scant extra content. You won't want a refund of your rental fee or feel cheated of the 98 minutes Sirocco stole from your life, but unless you are a Bogart fan, look elsewhere for quality.
Round up the usual suspects and have them shot!
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