Friday, August 11, 2006


Just as it's difficult for me to put into words why CASABLANCA, on the surface a fairly ordinary WWII thriller, is such a great movie, it's difficult to say why CHINA GIRL isn't. I enjoyed watching it, but for the most part, it leaves the memory quickly despite having a wonderful visual style and an exciting plot not that different from CASABLANCA's. Set mostly in the city of Mandalay in Burma during November 1941, just before the United States officially went to war, the movie begins in a Chinese village where invading Japanese forces have arrested newsreel photographer George Montgomery as a spy. He escapes with some help from fellow prisoner Victor McLaglen (which involves a brief but very grim sequence in a pit of dead bodies) and the two are then spirited to safety by McLaglen's girlfriend, Lynn Bari. At a hotel in Mandalay, Montgomery meets the lovely Gene Tierney, who is selling some valuables to raise money for her father's work with orphans. When he starts flirting with her, he doesn't realize that she's Chinese; when he finds out, he hesitates for a moment but then kisses her roughly, as though he has something to prove. This turns her off at first, and Montgomery turns his attentions to Bari, but Tierney soon comes around to his charms and also lets him know that Bari and McLaglen are spies for the Japanese. The rest of the film covers several plot strands that come together at the end: 1) will Montgomery be able to bribe a pilot friend to let him hop a ride on his plane to get exclusive footage of the embattled Burma Road?; 2) how much of a pain in the ass will McLaglen and Bari be?; and 3) will Montgomery put personal concerns behind him and take the moral high ground in helping Tierney's father? There is a great fisticuffs scene with Montgomery, stripped to the waist, getting knocked around by McLaglen, and a flag-waving, propagandistic finale in which we see Montgomery transformed into a real hero. Also in the cast are Robert Blake, at the tender age of 9 playing a character a lot like Short Round in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, Philip Ahn as Tierney's dignified father, and Sig Ruman as Jarubi, the antiques dealer who may or may not have sinister motives. Performances are solid all around. At times, McLaglen sounds disconcertingly like an evil Cary Grant; Bari almost steals the show as the femme fatale who wavers between good and bad; Montgomery, looking and sounding like fellow B-stalwart James Craig, is very good (and very good looking) but still short of coming off as an A-grade hero like Bogart, Cagney, or Flynn. The best thing about the movie is its look--good use of shadows and lights through blinds, slightly askew camera angles, atmospheric sets. Not a classic, perhaps, but a solid, light-on-its-feet romantic spy thrillers that I'm glad I saw. [FMC]

No comments: