Friday, September 6, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: STRANGE CARGO (1940)

It might not be the most enlightening title, but Strange Cargo is certainly an apt way to describe the content of this 1940 drama from director Frank Borzage. Joan Crawford and Clark Gable lead an ensemble cast in a very strange story, indeed, which mixes a prison escape plot with a theme of spiritual redemption spurred by divine intervention. The result is a picture that will appeal to certain classic movie fans but simply baffle others; those who like Angel on My Shoulder (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) will also enjoy Strange Cargo, while Joan Crawford fans will appreciate the leading lady’s tough and distinctly unglamorous performance. The presence of notable supporting players like Ian Hunter, Peter Lorre, Eduardo Ciannelli, Paul Lukas, and Albert Dekker also enhances the interest of this picture for fans of character actors with long and varied careers.

Crawford plays Julie, an “entertainer” on a remote penal colony situated on a jungle island. When she’s unwillingly accosted by prisoner Verne (Gable), Julie is ordered off the island for fraternizing with the convicts, even though she has no money to pay for her passage. Julie’s forced departure coincides with a prison break by Verne and several other men, including loutish Moll (Albert Dekker), wife poisoner Hessler (Paul Lukas), and youngster Dufond (John Arledge), as well as the mysterious Cambreau (Ian Hunter). The escapees make their way toward the coast, and along the way Verne and Julie meet once again and press on together, venturing through a dangerous jungle and then facing an even deadlier ocean voyage in a small open boat. One by one, the convicts experience redemptive epiphanies about their lives and die, with Cambreau as their confessor and comforter. Eventually Verne, too, must confront his sins as well as Cambreau’s otherworldly origin.

Strange Cargo basically tells two very different stories with one set of characters. The first story, the more concrete and conventional of the two, is the prison break plot. The usual treachery, forced cooperation, and high mortality rate all make their appearances, with Moll and Verne vying for alpha male status among the men. Julie’s presence is an odd feminine addition to the setup, but it gives Verne something to possess as a symbol of his dominance, and her experiences on the island show how vicious and masculine this setting can be. The second story draws on the long tradition of the spiritual redemption narrative, which has its icons in stories like that of Paul on the road to Damascus, St. Augustine in his Confessions, and John Bunyan in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. With Cambreau as the agent of God’s forgiveness, the characters - sinners all - experience conversion and salvation, although the diabolical murderer Hessler pointedly rejects Cambreau’s offer of grace, slinking off to find new victims like the Devil in a medieval morality play. For most of the characters, salvation arrives just in time for their souls to ascend to Heaven, but the religious nature of the story insists that such deaths are victories because of the larger, eternal stakes for which Cambreau is playing.

The performances help to sell this unusual narrative merger, especially Joan Crawford’s fearless portrayal of Julie. The role requires little makeup, less wardrobe, and plenty of dirt and sweat, but Crawford tackles it all, and the fierce quality that defines the actress suits the character perfectly. Gable, no slouch at playing a hard luck type, either, makes Verne attractive enough that we forgive his rough manner even though his faults are clearly on display. The supporting players provide a diverse group, with Peter Lorre sweaty and reprehensible as Julie’s stool pigeon admirer, Eduardo Ciannelli intense as the convict Telez, and Paul Lukas really chilling as the unrepentant Hessler. Albert Dekker does an excellent job showing both sides of Moll, who acts like a brute but harbors a deep and honest affection for the young Dufond. Every convict except for Hessler has his better nature as well as his flaws, which gives the actors plenty to work with in their roles. Of course, the whole thing hinges on Ian Hunter’s beatific Cambreau, whose serene but solid presence upholds the others at the darkest moments of their lives. Hunter makes his angelic character heavenly without being stiff, and his face glows with charitable love for his fellow escapees. In the film’s climax, he becomes a Christ figure, his arms stretched across a beam as Verne finally has his own epiphany about the nature of man and God. It’s a heavy-handed moment, to be sure, but it’s consistent with the film’s message and underscores what has gone before.

For more angels among men, see It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Angels in the Outfield (1951), or Wings of Desire (1987). Frank Borzage, who won two Oscars for his work, also directed A Farewell to Arms (1932), The Mortal Storm (1940), and Stage Door Canteen (1943). See more of Crawford and Gable in Possessed (1931), Dancing Lady (1933), and Chained (1934). You’ll find Ian Hunter playing paternal and princely types in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Little Princess (1939). Paul Lukas won the Oscar for Best Actor for Watch on the Rhine (1943), and he also appears in The Lady Vanishes (1938) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Eduardo Ciannelli played many small and uncredited roles, but you can catch him giving a very memorable performance as the murderous guru in Gunga Din (1939). Finally, look for Albert Dekker in The Killers (1946), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Strange Cargo is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.