Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Long Voyage Home (1940)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at Enuffa.com!

Still toiling back here in the 1940s and still on the theme of "films photographed by Gregg Toland," today I'll be reviewing one of John Ford's lesser known films, The Long Voyage Home, starring John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, and a host of character actors as a ragtag group of merchant marines tapped by the British government to deliver a shipment of explosives to London, around the start of World War II.  The sailors are a rowdy lot, prone to drunken debauchery and very bad decisions.  Case in point, while the ship is docked in the West Indies at the film's outset, Mitchell's character Driscoll, the group's de facto leader, sneaks ashore one night to arrange for a host of native female guests to smuggle booze aboard the ship so the crew can party.  Later in the film the crew, prone to mob mentality, begins to suspect one of their own, a shifty Englishman named Smitty, of being a German spy because of his secretive behavior.  Smitty isn't, but that doesn't stop them from tying him up and raiding his possessions, determined to prove his guilt at all costs.  In the film's third act when Wayne's character, a rather dimwitted Swede named Olsen decides to return home after ten years at sea, but he and the group can't help getting roped into one last blowout at a seedy tavern, where the waitstaff and a sailing agent have ulterior motives to keep Olsen from leaving.
The film is episodic in structure, based on a series of four Eugene O'Neill plays, and I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, also based on an episodic literary work, also about a group of morally questionable miscreants and their wartime escapades.  Thomas Mitchell's lively performance stands out; Driscoll is a dopey but kinda lovable drunken schlub who tries to do right by his shipmates but can't get out of his own way.  Wayne has surprisingly little dialogue and what few lines he has consist of broken English and one of the worst attempts at a Swedish accent you'll ever hear; in fact I thought at first he was just supposed to be a mentally challenged American character who couldn't speak in complete sentences.  Ian Hunter as Smitty is uneasy and desperate, always hiding a humiliating secret from his friends.  

But the real star of this film is Gregg Toland, whose gorgeous cinematography is allowed to fully shine, contrary to films like The Best Years of Our Lives, where his camera was reined in.  The Long Voyage Home's visuals are positiviely Expressionistic, conveying the oppressive nighttime heat of the West Indies, the dimly lit, shadowy confines of the ship, and most strikingly the ominous, foggy streets of London as the crew wanders around looking for a dive bar to waste time in.  Toland's work here foreshadows his photographic masterclass Citizen Kane one year later, and it's easy to see why Orson Welles tapped him to sit behind the camera for his directorial debut.  This is one of the most atmospheric movies of the era, and one of the prototypes for the budding Film Noir genre.

The Long Voyage Home is a rather harrowing account of the isolation and desperation of WWII-era merchant marines, elevated by strong character work and especially the gorgeous, dreamlike black and white cinematography by one of the industry's all-time greats.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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