Monday, August 07, 2006


STRANGE CARGO (1940, Frank Borzage, Lawrence Hazard / Anita Loos / Lesser Samuels screenplay, Richard Sale novel)
In heaven and on earth, in all the world, there's nobody can save you but me. So when you say your prayers, say 'em to me, Cambreau. I'm the only god you can call on now. Remember? You were right when you said God was in me. God's in everybody. Gambier's God, I'm God, you're— You're— Cambreau!

Strange cargo. Strange movie. Andre Verne is a tougher-than-Bogie penal colony hard case who's armed with two deadly weapons, his head and his heart – "and nobody can take 'em away from me." He makes a play for Julie when he's on a dock-side work crew: they meet nasty, not cute, she's a tougher-than-Bacall high class hooker who services the guards and prison officials in a port hotel. She ends up drawn into a prison break, fighting for survival with Verne and several other escapees as they make their way through a hostile jungle (there's quicksand, even. What ever happened to quicksand? It was in every movie when I was a kid, but do you think it shows up anywhere anymore? Must be global warming…) and across a perilous sea in hopes of a new chance at their old lives of crime.

What's strange is the Bible-toting Cambreau (in the novel his first name is Jean. Of course.), who shows up mysteriously in the prison camp – he's clearly not a criminal – and then joins the jailbreak, guiding them when they're lost, offering his life for others, paying their way to freedom, foretelling the future, protecting hardened criminals from their worst impulses and encouraging them to deathbed confessions. ("Escape from Devil's Island," get it?). The religious dialogue and symbolism of this movie are so heavy-handed I kept thinking it must be a church-funded project of some sort, but no way: not with stars like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Peter Lorre. Not with so much edge on the lead characters: sure they're only movie-tough, but sparks of real cruelty fuel their atrraction, and (adjusting your set to correct for certain movie-isms of the day) these are some pretty dark characters. There may be more Blble quotes per frame than any Billy Graham movie, but there's no church behind this noir-inflected (noir-infected?) escape picture. Fact is, it received a "condemned" rating from the Legion of Decency for "Irreverent use of Scripture" and lustful complications." MIRACLE OF THE BELLS, IN THE RAIN or ON 34th STREET it ain't.

The clash between hard-boiled and holy is jarring much of the time, enough that it's a struggle to take it all seriously. But if we do, ultimately, it's because of Crawford's committed performance – the character talks tough, and goes for rough trade, but there's real pain and regret underneath it all, and ultimately this portrayal of a soul's journey toward redemption is surprisingly effective. Just watch how that face changes over the course of the film. (It's an easy enough face to watch.)


Available at Videomatica

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