It's the silence that throws you---or rather, the lack of bombastic score that does not accompany the credits of John Huston's rollicking dark-continent adventure. Oh, you'll get plenty of rip-roaring symphonic flourishes later on, as sodden sea captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart, in his most perspiration-filled performance) and prim missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn) take on pesky nuisances like mosquitoes, leeches and WWI-era Germans. But where you'd normally hear a stirring opening fanfare, you get the sounds of the wild: birds chirping, monkeys braying, the steady gurgle of a river. Then viewers are treated to a god-awful racket in a rickety church; a European spiritual hymn is reduced to confused cacophony in a cross-cultural breakdown. (You won't find a slyer take on "civilizing" the so-called heathen masses in mainstream cinema.) Five minutes in, and cowriter-director John Huston has already set the stage for something besides your typical '50s jungle-bwana boogie.
Time hasn't been kind to the film's clunky period F/X, but the relationship between the two leads is what keeps this old-school adventure feeling surprisingly modern. Their sweaty 'n' sour charm evolves into a love born of complementary characteristics, mutual respect and, astonishingly, equality; Bacall may have been Bogie's soulmate, but it was Kate who provided him with someone as flinty and resourceful as he was. The African Queen remains, first and foremost, a star-powered slice of Hollywood comfort food. Huston and these two giants, however, almost turn it into a banquet.
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