In our opinion, the best movie villain is a real smarty pants. There’s nothing worse than a bad guy you can easily outsmart; otherwise, what would be the point of getting out of bed?
This is precisely why we think Sydney Greenstreet is the perfect villain. He narrows his eyes when he scrutinizes you, he laces his capacious vocabulary with dry wit, and he keeps your glass filled with liquor. Plus, he wears those impeccably-tailored white suits that look really expensive.
A perfect example of Greenstreet at work is the adventure-war flick Across the Pacific (1942). Greenstreet is a mysterious passenger on a Japanese freighter in the days preceding America’s active involvement in World War II. He has aligned himself with the Japanese, and is suspiciously keen on gathering information on American military activities in the Panama Canal.
Greenstreet’s fellow passengers include Humphrey Bogart, who plays an army captain freshly discharged for embezzlement, and the delightful Mary Astor, a young woman who claims she’s from Medicine Hat, Canada.
(Digression: What is the deal with Mary Astor’s hair? We are forever distracted by it: How long does it take the hair stylist to prepare it? Why are some parts permed and others not? Why is it so asymmetrical in the back?)
Across the Pacific is one of those movies where everyone lies about their true identity, and for a while you’re scratching your head, wondering who’s a traitor, who’s a spy, and who’s a sucker. It’s also a film where a lot of people end up getting shot.
In addition to that, we the audience are subtly reminded that the Pearl Harbor doomsday clock is ticking. We see cables and other paperwork with dates inching closer to December 7, 1941, which adds another layer of urgency to the plot.
Not surprisingly, this is a film that does not portray the Japanese in a positive way. But at least these characters are given credit for having intelligence and are not reduced to mere caricatures. We love Sen Young’s dynamic performance as a second-generation Japanese-American.
We also love watching Greenstreet and Bogart verbally duke it out on screen. Greenstreet is smooth and urbane, draping complex sentences around the scene like a garland. Bogart is cynical and tenacious, his staccato speech bursting like gunfire. They couldn’t be more dissimilar, and the chemistry couldn’t be better.
Our man Greenstreet had a short but impressive Hollywood career. He made 24 movies in eight years, including The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the charming Christmas in Connecticut. His career is even more remarkable when you realize that the whole time he was suffering from diabetes and chronic nephritis (Bright’s disease).
Across the Pacific is a good yarn with a clever script and superb direction. It also seems, to us, a plausible scenario in the few short weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
We want to publicly thank our friends at Film Noir Blonde for sending us this terrific DVD. If you’re not already following FNB, well then! Make haste and check it out!
Across the Pacific: starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Directed by John Huston and Vincent Sherman. Written by Richard Macaulay. Warner Brothers, 1942, B&W, 95 mins.