Thursday 24 September 2009

Sealed Cargo (1951)

Director: Alfred Werker
Stars: Dana Andrews, Carla Balenda and Claude Rains
Sealed Cargo, made six years after World War II ended, is a story of one small victory during that conflict, small victories being described as 'acts of great personal courage by little people'. Chief among the little people is Pat Bannion, the captain of the Daniel Webster, a fishing trawler out of Gloucester, MA. It's 1943 so even the Americans have turned up for World War II and there's plenty of fear around. Crew are hard to find and when Margaret McLean turns up wanting to book passage to a small town called Trebo on the Newfoundland coast, he's wary because the U-boats are patrolling the shore. He ends up taking the job, but it's a dangerous one as he soon discovers.

By the time he hears machine gun fire out on the Grand Banks, like the U-boats use to communicate when they need to keep radio silence, someone has sabotaged the Daniel Webster's radio. The next noise is bigger guns than machine guns and in the aftermath they come upon a schooner, one that has apparently been weathered, shelled and abandoned. It's a Danish ship, or so says one of the two Danes he has on board, but he's not sure how much he can trust them. Konrad is the most obviously suspicious as he's brand new to his crew but then Holger has only sailed with Bannion once before and suspicion is easily diverted over to him. Konrad turns out to be right: the ship is Danish, the Gaunt Woman out of Copenhagen, full of an opportunistic cargo of Jamaican rum.
There's only one live man on board: the ship's captain, Henrik Skalder, played by Claude Rains. He meets them with a gun drawn but quickly faints away into exhaustion, and as the ship is damaged but seaworthy and full of valuable cargo, Bannion tows her to Trebo. Given the circumstances, there's suspicion everywhere, powerful suspicion as to what this ship means, what else she might be carrying and whether this was all a Nazi plan. I'm not going to spoil what's coming but the opening blurb about small victories can hardly suggest that there's aything but a happy ending coming. In any case, 1951 was right in the middle of the era of the Production Code, which mandated that villains could never get away with their villainy without getting their comeuppance.

It's an RKO picture but the star is Dana Andrews, on loan from Samuel Goldwyn, as the opening screen is careful to tell us. He'd had some major films to his name by 1951, not least The Ox-Bow Incident, Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives, but I haven't even heard of any of his films from 1946 through to Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps a decade later. Claude Rains I know very well and he's a fine Nazi captain though he has too little to do here. The leading lady is Carla Balenda, formerly known as Sally Bliss, who doesn't get much to do either. She reminds often of Jean Arthur, though without the memorable voice, and it's surprising to find she made so few movies, just twelve in the decade from 1944 to 1954, many of them what look like B westerns. She may well be best known for a recurring role on the June Lockhart version of Lassie as Timmy's teacher, Miss Hazlit.

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