Thursday, May 15, 2008

On boats and confined spaces

As part of a birthday tribute to Joseph Cotten, TCM played Journey Into Fear. It's not listed as being available on DVD, so I'll just give a brief plot summary: Cotten plays an arms dealer in Istanbul who's being chased by the Nazis; in order to escape, his Turkish contact puts him on a boat to Batumi in Soviet Georgia. (It's probably the only Hollywood studio movie with any scenes set in Soviet Georgia. I can't think of any others.) Of course, the people hunting him also end up on the boat....

The movie made me think about boats, and the way they are often used to create a sense of claustrophobia. Much like the train, in movies like The Narrow Margin, a ship is a self-contained space that provides little opportunity for escape. As such, it's a handy plot device for creating suspense when you've got a character who's being followed. Glenn Ford, for example, suffered such a fate in Plunder of the Sun.

Boats also limit the number of characters you can have. The result is that you know the bad guy is very close, but which person is it? Journey Into Fear uses this; there are variations on the theme in movies like The Lady from Shanghai, and the beginning of Torn Curtain.

Having a boat also means there's a finite amount of space to hide, or to search for something. Bette Davis learned this to her detriment when she was making out with a ship's officer in Now, Voyager; it drove Humphrey Bogart mad when his strawberries didn't show up in The Caine Mutiny.

And then there are the comedic aspects of a lack of space. Cary Grant and a bunch of guys get stuck carrying around a group of female nurses on a submarine (the ultimate lack of space) in Operation Petticoat, while Gary Cooper's crew has to hide distilled water being used to make a steam-powered warship work in You're in the Navy Now.

With the exception of Journey Into Fear, all of the movies mentioned are available on DVD. (Ooh, that gives me more ideas for future posts.....)

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