Sunday, May 11, 2014

Blood on the Sun (1945)

Director: Frank Lloyd                                    Writer: Lester Cole
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                             Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Starring: James Cagney, Sylvia Sidney, James Bell and John Emery

By the time the war was almost over in 1945 Hollywood had no problem at all painting the Japanese as amoral demons bent on world domination. Blood on the Sun is an independent film put together by Cagney’s new production company with his brother William as producer. With Cagney’s name he was able to assemble a talented cast and crew and release through United Artists. The film concerns an actual Japanese plot to take over the world that was exposed in 1927. At the time Japan claimed it was a forgery, and unfortunately nothing else was done about it. Writer Garrett Fort came up with a fictional story surrounding the plans that included lots of intrigue and a climactic fight scene for Cagney. Audiences at the time certainly didn’t need any convincing about Japanese duplicity, especially given the carnage that was going on in the Pacific Theater for the past several years, and were no doubt more than happy to have their prejudices reinforced in the movie theater.

The film begins in the late nineteen twenties with James Cagney as a newspaper editor in Tokyo. He has just published a story saying that the Japanese premier, John Emery, has created a secret plan to attack the United States as part of an overall world strategy. Of course the Japanese are outraged and demand a retraction. But since he planted the story in the U.S. papers the day before, he can claim he took the story from them. Fellow reporter Wallace Ford and his wife are set to leave the country, but when Cagney goes to see them off he finds the wife dead. Back at his house Ford gives Cagney a copy of the plan just before he dies, and it disappears after Cagney is arrested by the Japanese police. Japanese premier John Emery wants to make sure that the plans are not made public and to get them back he hires half-Chinese Sylvia Sidney to get them from Cagney. Since Emery was unsuccessful in the raid on Cagney’s house, he sets up Sidney to make Cagney fall for her so she can discover where he has them hidden. And Cagney does fall, hard, that is until he recognizes her as the woman he saw when Ford’s wife was murdered.

It’s a convoluted tale, and one that seems a little overblown for something that will only cause the Japanese a little bad publicity. The undercurrent of the plot, however, is the real point here. It pains the Japanese as secretive, in a way that predicts the attack on Pearl Harbor and reinforces the idea that they are duplicitous and evil. None of the major Japanese figures in the film, however, are played by Asians. The villain is played by John Emery, and the screenplay even has Tojo participating, played by a completely disguised Robert Armstrong. Leonard Strong is the secret police guard, and Frank Puglia plays the Japanese prince who opposes the plan. James Bell puts in a good performance as Cagney’s assistant editor, while the ubiquitous Porter Hall plays the owner of the newspaper. And finally, toward the end of the film, Hugh Beaumont, television’s Ward Cleaver, makes an appearance as a U.S. Embassy official.

Cagney is solid in his performance, as usual, and critics at the time had generally good things to say about him. He claimed to have done all the stunts in the climactic fight scene himself, but a close inspection of the film shows that it was clearly a stunt man in a red wig doing most of the heavy lifting. Cagney apparently wanted the great Sylvia Sidney to play the Chinese woman because of her distinctive looks, and no doubt because she had done a convincing job in Madame Butterfly in 1932. Wallace Ford spends his appearance playing drunk in the beginning of the film, but has little to do after that. The film was directed by Frank Lloyd whose biggest hit had been Mutiny on the Bounty for MGM. And the fantastic composer Miklós Rózsa wrote a distinctive score that wisely eschews overt Oriental sounding themes. The picture also won an Academy Award for best black and white production design. Blood on the Sun may not be vintage Cagney, but it is enjoyable for the more mature performance he gives, and the solid supporting cast assisting him.

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