Sunday, August 25, 2013

Strange Cargo

TCM has been honoring Clark Gable today as part of its annual Star of the Month programming. Several of the movies they've shown have co-starred Joan Crawford: the two of them, being contract players at MGM in the 1930s, were repeatedly paired by the studio bosses. In fact, the two made eight pictures together, and the last of those eight, Strange Cargo, is airing at midnight.

Joan Crawford plays Julie, a brassy woman who shows up on an island where there is a prison colony. On the ship to the island, she's met Verne (Clark Gable), who is actually a prisoner being transported to the island. He tries to escape; she turns him in. Some relationship. Anyhow, Julie is presumably a woman of ill repute, and the authorities don't want her around. The only person who can help her is Monsieur Pig (Peter Lorre), who just oozes dirty creep from every pore of his body. Things aren't looking good for Julie.

But the movie is just as much about Verne, and we see him in the prison camp, along with a whole bunch of other prisoners who live in what are more or less barracks as opposed to cells. It's an island; who the hell is going to escape anyway? Sure enough, however, some of the prisoners are going to try to escape. They're led by Moll (Albert Dekker), who's in for murder. Moll takes along his young companion Dufond (John Arledge); serial killer Hessler (Paul Lukas); and Cambreau (Ian Hunter), who seems to have an influence on those around him. But more on that later. Moll and Verne hate each other, but Verne is able to blackmail his way into a spot in the escape, as an uneasy, impermanent truce forms among the various convicts.

Along the way, Verne gets attacked by Moll, is given a map of the escape route to the boat that's supposed to be waiting for them by Cambreau, finds Julie, who is now a kept woman, and then makes it to the boat. There's one catch: there's not enough water on the boat for them to last the whole journey. And if any of them drink the salt water, it's going to kill them. Still, Cambreau begins to work his influence on the various prisoners one by one, an influence which is almost Jesus-like. The movie's title, Strange Cargo, is certainly appropriate. There's a lot odd going on here.

Some of what goes on in the movie is predictable: Julie winds up falling in love with Verne, for example. Some of it is less predictable. Moll's relationship to Dufond, for example, is probably a homosexual relationship, although of course thanks to the Production Code this is only hinted at. But it's the obvious reason for why Moll would want the otherwise incompetent Dufond along on the escape. It also seems kind of difficult to believe that Cambreau could have the sort of influence on the various prisoners that he does. But then, I think Strange Cargo is supposed to be more of a morality play than a work based on realism.

As for the acting, it's uniformly good. The writing I find a bit uneven: at times it feels like the movie is going on a bit too slowly; at other times it feels as though, with all these prisoners, there's too much going on. But that's a minor flaw in what is otherwise a very interesting and worthy movie.

Strange Cargo has been released to DVD as part of a Joan Crawfod box set. I'm not certain whether it's available as a stand-alone DVD, however.

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