Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Decks Ran Red

Dorothy Dandridge was TCM's Star of the Month back in September. She didn't make all that many movies so TCM didn't run many, but there was one that I hadn't seen before and recorded: The Decks Ran Red. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, so I recently sat down to watch it and do a post on it here.

The SS Berwind is a ship docked in a small port in New Zealand, owned by an American shipping company based out of Los Angeles. The ship's captain has recently died suddenly, which causes some dissension in the crew's ranks, with the cook and chief steward jumping ship, and other crew members thinking the captain didn't just die of a heart attack. Henry Scott (Broderick Crawford), in particular, seems to have it in for the management and already seems to be planning a mutiny with his friend and crewmate Leory Martin (Stuart Whitman).

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Edwin Rummell (James Mason) is the first mate aboard a cruise ship whose home port is Los Angeles and which is owned by the same company that owns the Berwind. The shipping line decides to promote Rummell to take over the Berwind even though this means flying him all the way across the Pacific, and also overlooking Moody, the Berwind's own first mate, because he's too old and probably should have been pushed into retirement anyway.

So Rummell arrives on board the Berwind to find a tense situation. This is exacerbated by the fact that the ship had to find a cook at very short notice, since getting crappy food is one of the things that will make a crew even more likely to become malcontents and mutiny. The cook that the get is a Māori named Vic, who has agreed to be the ship's cook only on the condition that he's allowed to bring his wife Mahia (Dorothy Dandridge) aboard with him; she effectively gets to be the ship's steward.

Needless to say, the presence of Mahia really gets the crew's hormones flowing, resulting in more dissension. And we also learn what Henry's real intention is. He doesn't want to mutiny; instead, he's found an obscure bit of maritime law that someone who finds a derelict ship and rescues it is entitled to half the value of the ship and its cargo. So his plan is to waterlog the ship but not enough to sink it, and then claim to find the derelict ship. I'd think this wouldn't work since he was one of the crew members and certainly the shipping line would know this, but run with the story anyway. Henry and Leroy plan to pull off the nefarious scheme at some point. The bring in a third party, Mace, becaue he's got a gun. But he talks in his sleep, and that forces Henry and Leroy to kill him!

The disappearance of Mace raises one more alarm among the crew, together with the death of Moody and Henry's trying to incite a mutiny which is of course not really what he wants, but is an excuse to get rid of the officers before he can get rid of the unsuspecting crew. Eventually, Henry and Leroy kill the four men on watch in the engine room, and that sets off the "mutiny" and the climactic struggle for Rummill to regain control of the Berwind.

In terms of storytelling and visual style, The Decks Ran Red made me think of another Mason movie I blogged about recently, Cry Terror! This shouldn't be surprising, since both movies were directed by Andrew Stone and made by him and his wife Virginia. It's a no-nonsense style that plays out more like a programmer than a big-budget movie, and frankly, it's something that works well for both movies. Mason and Dandridge are both quite competent if unspectacular. Whitman does OK with an early role, while Crawford has fallen into his bombastic style that isn't necessarily bad here, but makes you wonder why anybody would follow him as a leader.

I somewhat wish the movie had been made in color (there's a brief splash of red on the word "RED" in the title card), but that's a minor quibble. While nobody will think of The Decks Ran Red as the highlight in the career of anybody who made it, it's a definitely effective little film, and not a bad way to spend 84 minutes.

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