Sunday 27 January 2008

Strange Cargo (1940)

The opening reads: 'Deep in the Guianas... a penal colony for men set aside to be forgotten by the world they lived in - for men to whom the present, the future and the past are one... for men without hope.' It doesn't say so but this is Devil's Island, obviously a popular place for film in 1940 as Karloff had made a film with that explicit name only a year before. It's a grim place and sure enough, the next thing we see a bearded and filthy Clark Gable being released after thirty days in solitary confinement. He's André Verne and he's obviously not happy where he is. We're given a list of his achievements: 90 lashes, 16 months in solitary, 7 months in the bear pit, 5 attempts to escape in 3 years.

He looks surprisingly good for such treatment but then this is 1940 after all, and to make matters even more strange, those in charge decide to put him out on the wharf, confident that there's no way that he could possibly escape. These are the jungles of Guiana, after all, and they get to a man. On the wharf he quickly becomes aware of a number of the other major players in our story, including Joan Crawford as a saloon singer called Julie, Peter Lorre as the slimy Monsieur Cochon ('The Pig'), Paul Lukas as a particularly nasty prisoner called Hessler and Ian Hunter as another called Cambreau with spiritual strength and a mystery behind him. The other major name is Albert Dekker as a tough prisoner named Moll who masterminds an escape. This was his last film before Dr Cyclops, shot in colour and from which I knew him best.

On the wharf we also become aware that pretty much everyone's supposedly French, though nobody remotely tries to be. It's about as authentic in that regard as the supposedly German but completely American soldiers in All's Quiet on the Western Front, with only Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas coming remotely close, and even they not by design. Hunter of course is English and Dekker is apparently an Aussie. Nobody's French.

There are good things here, but mostly they have to do with the major names increasing their presence in our minds, just building our impressions of them within the context of their respectively bodies of work. In most respects they just play the same characters they usually played, merely in a new location: Gable is tough and manly, Crawford the tough as nails dame in tough circumstances, Lorre the slimy and sinister supporting character with depth. There's some really cool dialogue with Gable in particular getting a couple of great ones in early, both aimed at Crawford: 'Keep a light in the window and a couple more in your eyes' and 'You've got class, baby, or is it because I haven't seen any women lately?'

Unfortunately that 'baby' is used in what seems like every single line that Gable throws Crawford's way. It's one of the most annoying things about this movie, even more annoying than the accents. Others include the staccato camerawork when switching between the two halves of a conversation, some atrocious soundtrack music and the ease at which everyone and their dog seems to be able to escape at will from somewhere as notorious as Devil's Island. There's also a notable contrast between what is obviously location work somewhere and blatant set work, but some of the location shots are gorgeous, yet another contrast in this movie. It's like there were two cinematographers or the one was schizophrenic.

Gable and Crawford made eight films together, nine if you count Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow in 1925 when both were just extras. They were always good opposite one another, and this one works as well as the rest on that front. Lorre isn't on screen long and Dekker and Lukas are archetypes. The key player here is really Ian Hunter, as while this pretends to be an action film, it's really a spiritual epic with Hunter playing Jesus Christ himself, the real strength and soul of everyone in the story. He can see everything that's to come, good and bad, and he's the one to whom everyone turns when they're about to die, to give solace and meaning to their lives. What a strange film.

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