Monday December 02, 2019
Movie Review: Blood on the Sun (1945)
A tough American man (with a hint of the gangster) and a beautiful woman (foreign, exotic) are trapped in an Axis country before America’s entry into World War II. The bad guys are closing in but our heroes are about to get away. Then at the last minute he tells her to go on without him. As she objects, he looks deeply into her eyes and says the following:
We’ve got jobs to do. Nobody gave them to us but they’ve got to be done. You’re my girl, aren’t you? All right then, you’re gonna do what I want you to do. I know it’s tough. Tougher to go than it is to stay. But you can’t hold ’em and I think I can.
Yeah, not exactly Bogart to Bergman in “Casablanca.”
Instead, it’s James Cagney to Sylvia Sidney in “Blood on the Sun,” a movie filmed in 1944 for Cagney’s nascent production company, but not released, via United Artists, until April 26, 1945—four days before Adolf Hitler killed himself. “Blood” is a movie set before the war but released just as the war was ending. (It still did well at the box office.)
Cagney, of course, was never Bogart in the romance department. The brilliance of Bogart was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could still break his heart. The brilliance of Cagney was he was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could ... shaddap.
Some of my best friends
Cagney plays Nick Condon, crusading managing editor of The Tokyo Chronicle, which, as the movie opens, prints a story about one of Japan’s leaders:
TANAKA PLANS ATTACK ON UNITED STATES
Apparently this was a real thing—or a real hoax. News stories about the “Tanaka Memorial”—plans to take over the world after attacking China and the U.S.—were first published in the late 1920s, got an English translation in the early ’30s, and treated by the U.S. government throughout World War II as the Japanese version of Mein Kampf, but most scholars today think it never existed. Even in the movie, Condon isn’t sure—a bit odd, given his headline—so he spends the rest of the movie chasing down leads to a story he’s already written. Not exactly Journalism 101.
Indeed, one of the movie’s villains, Joe Cassell (Rhys Williams), an American reporter in league with the Japanese, turns out to be more correct than our hero. He and Condon are introduced at an expat bar and discuss Condon’s story:
Cassell: Of course there’s not a grain of truth in it. You know that.
Condon: I don’t know anything. Do you?
Cassell: Quite a bit. Our Chinese cousins are trying desperately to shape public opinion against Japan.
Apparently he was right. Not bad for the bad guy. But here's the dialogue that made me do a double take:
Cassell: Not that I haven’t a tremendous admiration for the Chinese people.
Condon: I see. [Smiles] Some of my best friends are Chinese, huh?
Wow. So how long has that line been around? Not just people using the line, but using it ironically.
The New York Times archive isn’t that helpful. Its first “Some of my best friends are...” reference came in 1944, when this movie was being filmed, but it was in a review of a homefront novel playing off that phrase: “Some of My Best Friends are Soldiers.” It wasn’t until Russell Baker used it in a 1964 humorous op-ed about a Triborough bridge protest that we got the first ironic usage in the paper. Speaking in the voice of a commuter, Baker writes, “Some of my best friends are city dwellers but I don’t want to have them living across my fastest right-of-way.” By 1970, the Times will have eight such references, a year later it’s the title of a movie about a Greenwich Village gay bar, and we’re off to the races.
Thanks to Rick Santorum, though, we know it started much earlier than that. In the 2011 presidential election, CNN’s Don Lemon asked him if he had any gay friends, Santorum used a vague version of the line, and Bradford Plumer, in The New Republic, did a deep dive into the term. According to Plumer, it was used without irony in the first few decades of the 20th century by, among others:
- Democratic VP nominee John Worth Kern in 1908 (“...Republicans”)
- Baptist preacher John Roach Straton, objecting to Al Smith’s 1928 presidential run (“...Catholics)
- Hugo Black, 1937 nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, on his KKK past (“...Jews”)
Such forthright usage among the powerful (and racist) surely led to its ironic usage among the marginalized. Robert Gessner’s 1936 history of anti-Semitism was called “Some of My Best Friends are Jews,” for example. Either way, “Blood” seems ahead of its time here.
The movie is also ahead of its time in its treatment of martials arts. For the film, Cagney, a one-time boxer, trained under a judo master and kept going with the sport long after filming was over. He treated it seriously, and so does the film.
Anyway, shortly after Condon’s tete-a-tete with Cassell, one of Condon’s reporters, Ollie Miller (Wallace Ford), shows up at the bar flashing cash. He pays off old debts, buys new rounds, says sayonara to his colleagues. Where did he get the dough? He refuses to say. So does his wife, Edith (Rosemary DeCamp), whom Condon visits; she’s just happy they’re finally leaving Japan. Ever the friend, Condon shows up at the ship with a bottle of champagne but finds her dead, seemingly strangled, and him missing.
Later, Miller shows up at Condon’s place, shot, dying, with the Tanaka plan in his hand and the Japanese on his tail. Condon has to move fast—but where to hide it? Here, that Golden-Age Hollywood conceit that people keep framed photos of world figures on the wall comes in handy. (It was just a conceit, wasn’t it?) Condon is so international, it seems, he not only has a photo of Pres. Hoover in his bedroom but Emperor Hirohito, and he hides the Tanaka plan behind the latter, assuming the Japanese won’t disturb it. They don’t. They bow to it.
After a short judo battle, Condon is jailed (Cagney gets his usual down-and-out scruff), traduced (accused of drunken partying: “Find Nicholas Condon with two girls,” says Police Chief Yamada, tsking), but the Tanaka plan behind Hirohito’s picture has gone missing. Next thing we know, Condon is being forced to leave the country. Then he’s introduced, by Cassell, to Iris Hilliard (Sylvia Sidney), a half-Chinese woman who seems to be doing the bidding of the Japanese, and who may have been involved in the murder of the Millers.
Up to this point, the movie isn’t a bad espionage thriller. But the romance really doesn’t work. Are Cagney and Sidney too old for it? He’s still light on his feet but has that growing heaviness in his face and gut. She’s just returning from a four-year film hiatus, during which she had a child. It begins well enough. She's interested, he's suspicious of that interest—like Michael Caine in “Funeral in Berlin”:
Iris: Perhaps I like your looks.
Condon: Uh-uh. [Circles his face] Not with this.
Iris: There are maybe things about that I like.
Condon: Yeah? What?
Iris: I’ve always liked red hair.
Condon: Well, I grew it for you.
Iris: And the ears.
Condon: Two of those.
Iris: Isn’t that good?
Condon: More would be vulgar.
But our boy quickly gets dull. He drops doubt for randy come-ons and lame double entendres:
Iris: You know what this chase has done for me? Developed a ravenous appetite.
Condon [gives her the once over]: I’ve developed a few myself.
Iris [after saying she’s there to help Japanese women]: Why not? I’m a woman.
Condon [once over]: I’ve been aware of that for some time.
Oddly, once they become a couple—and it’s revealed that, yes, she was working with the Japanese, but as a kind of double agent, evidenced by the fact that she stole the Tanaka plan—Condon immediately seems past any love, or lust, and treats her with a kind of brisk paternalism: forehead kisses and cheek pats. There’s no heat whatsoever.
The scroll of the poet
The screenplay was written by Lester Cole (one of his last), with additional scenes by Nathaniel Curtis (his first), and again we get some not-bad moments. There’s a good back-and-forth, for example, between Prince Tatsugi (Frank Puglia), who is counseling a more peaceful path, and Premier Tanaka (John Emery), who isn’t. “I’m the scroll of the poet behind which samurai swords are being sharpened,” Tatsugi says. Good line.
If the Japanese aren’t all bad—interesting in itself in a WWII movie—none of them are Japanese. It's the usual Caucasian actors in yellowface. Besides Emery and Puglia, Robert Armstrong of “King Kong” fame plays Col. Tojo; John Halloran, an LA cop and judo expert, plays Condon’s nemesis Capt. Oshima; while Marvin Miller is the super-annoying, tsking Capt. Yamada. Miller is good at it. Cf., Kwon in “Peking Express.”
“Blood on the Sun” tries for the big finish. After his “Casablanca”ish goodbye to Sylvia Sidney, Condon battles Oshima (a judo challenge issued in the first act will go off in the third), wins, is chased down the wharf, and makes his way to the U.S. embassy. Then he’s shot. Dead? Nah. U.S. diplomat Johnny Clarke (a young Hugh Beaumont) takes him past the entreaties of Yamada, and Cagney delivers the film’s final line for an audience still at war: “Sure, forgive your enemies. But first, get even.” Pan back, welling music, THE END.
Doesn’t resonate. Wasn't the beginning of a beautiful friendship.