Strange Cargo (1940)
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Ploughing the ground for later epics, such as McQueen's Papillon, this tale manages to touch a deeper and more fertile vein. Combines all the elements of a Hollywood classic from the Golden Age such as danger, drama, romance and desperation and yet without any aspect being a makeweight. Even more remarkable is the effortless ease with which the film places our deepest questions beside a gritty and genuinely exciting story. This film offers so much for Gable and Crawford fans but is definitely a must see for anyone!
The prisoners fall on hard times as they escape through the woods and also while at sea when their water becomes tainted. Cambreau gives each prisoner comfort and helps them to confront the evil that brought them to Devil's Island, helping to bring them peace at last. This is not lost on Julie who sees a chance for redemption. Verne, however, isn't interested.
This is a very simple story beautifully directed by Borzage. The atmosphere of the film is dark and haunting. There is no preachiness. The sheer power of Cambreau and his sense of faith is what brings the prisoners solace. Hunter is majestic in the role. Gable is appropriately tough, and Crawford brings depth to Julie, who thought she knew what she wanted. The rest of the cast is top-notch.
"Strange Cargo" seems like a film that was made in the early '30s with its Christian parable. This was the last film that Crawford and Gable made together. Its powerful message makes this a fitting ending for a fine MGM team.
Verne is a tough con who is locked up on the infamous Devil's Island, territory that would be trod in further depth in Passage To Marseille with Humphrey Bogart and to a more realistic degree in 1973's Papillon starring Steve McQueen. He is constantly trying to escape; so often that he makes the penal colony look like a ramshackle hotel rather than a brutal work camp. During one of his escapes he is replaced in the prison lineup by a mysterious man who calls himself Cambreau and who seemingly materializes out of nowhere. Verne crosses paths with a dance-hall tart named Julie (Joan Crawford) who fires his interest and her scorn. She turns him in but is herself ordered off the island for having spoken to the convict in the first place; apparently this is a serious no-no. Ultimately Verne joins a prison break that includes Cambreau and he later enlists Julie into the group by some plot turns that will leave a viewer scratching his head. From this point the story switches gears and becomes a story of redemption as Cambreau helps the evil convicts discover the good in their souls before they die off one by one. Julie falls for Verne and he for her although Julie takes it one step further by renouncing the wickedness in her life while failing to persuade Verne to do likewise. After Julie goes off on her own so Verne can escape to America he has an epiphany and returns to prison to finish off his sentence before marrying her.
This is the final Crawford-Gable picture and while Crawford assumes top billing (as she always did) Gable is the real star of the film. Hot on the heels of his success in Gone With the Wind he was at the zenith of his popularity while Crawford was on a downward spiral. As Verne Gable is his typical self: cocky, tough, and faithless. While his character comes across as a smug bastard there is no denying the actor's virility and star power. When he is on screen he wipes nearly everyone else off in a fierce display of animal magnetism. Crawford matches him in wisecracks but her subtle underplaying makes her conversion to the righteous life more convincing than his. There is a sadness and weariness to her performance that suggests her character has lost her way in life and is looking for some method of finding herself again. This she does through the mechanizations of Cambreau and it is a tribute to her acting talents that she pulls it off.
The supporting cast is uniformly good; Peter Lorre is loathsome in a stereotypically slimy role as the prison stooge while Paul Lukas is chilling as the evil Hessler, a murderer of rich women. However, it is the performance of Ian Hunter as Cambreau that is the gem in this film. There has been debate about who Cambreau is and to be sure the movie doesn't come out an say it but to me it is obvious he is Jesus Christ. He has come to redeem Verne and along the way to provide a righteous path for the other characters in the picture. As played by Hunter the character is saintly without being sappy and inspirational without being corny. His interplay with Hessler on several occasions is extremely interesting and one wishes the film focused on this more. Hessler is referred to as the devil on more than one occasion and in the end he is the only one who does not succumb to Cambreau's powers of persuasion. In their last confrontation Hessler comments on how they may cross paths in the future; Cambreau replies in no uncertain terms that they will never meet again. Clearly Hessler is headed South for eternity.
Strange Cargo is an interesting movie from a studio system era that was reluctant to take chances with its stories. Here is a film that covers a lot of ideological territory and does so energetically while retaining the star-making essence of its two leads. On top of this you have a supporting actor stealing the film with a masterful portrayal of Jesus in a modern setting. Enjoy
I have been enthralled by the movie Strange Cargo since seeing it as a nine year old boy on television in the middle 1950's. I purchased my own VHS copy of this movie in 1995, at the age of 51, watching it dozens and dozens of times, continually fascinated by the symbolism, the philosophical focus, and the stark adventure of a bold escape from a jungle penal colony controlled by the French off the coast of Guiana. This summer, at the age of 65, I bought a seasoned copy of Richard Sale's novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep from Amazon.com, hoping to peel off a few more layers of meaning.
Surprisingly, I concluded that Lawrence Hazard's screenplay was far superior to the Richard Sale novel upon which it was based, having a much tighter allegorical construction. Hazard thoroughly deconstructed the novel but stayed faithful to the philosophical core. The screenplay graphically describes the remarkable transformations or conversions from selfish to altruistic life views of six convicts and a sultry nightclub singer escaping to freedom through a dense tropical forest.
The catalyst for their transformations is a mysterious Christ figure named Jean Cambreau (Ian Hunter). The sultry nightclub singer Julie (Joan Crawford), ordered off the island by the warden for fraternizing with the prisoners, falls in love with a thief Andre Verne (Clark Gable) after he reads to her the romantic words of Solomon's Song of Songs. She altruistically plans to resign herself to an unhappy marriage with M'sieu Pig (Peter Lorre), a professional stool pigeon, in order to allow Verne to escape. A ruthless killer Moll (Albert Dekker) altruistically sacrifices his life as he drinks from a cask which has absorbed salt water.
Andre Verne, who almost escapes to freedom aboard a fishing boat, endangers his own life saving Cambreau, whom he has moments before attempted to drown. Paradoxically, Verne learns that true liberty or freedom consists not in escaping from law but in acquiescing to the law. Instead of deriving satisfaction from coveting and stealing things—he yielded to a wholesome love relationship and playing by the rules. He learned that when we play by the rules, we have freedom right now. Freedom and contentment is a condition independent from circumstances, a condition originating in the heart or mind.
At the end of the movie, Cambreau and the fisherman (played by Victor Varconi) who nearly brought Andre Verne to freedom had a very telling dialogue:
Fisherman: He won't be sorry? Cambreau: No fisherman. He won't. Fisherman: And everything will be all right for them someday? Cambreau: Everything is all right—now.
A user wrote that "strange cargo" was ahead of its time.It's so obvious that even now,it remains demanding ,deep,and absorbing.When you see where the adventures movie has gone,the likes of Indiana and co,you wonder that some works like that have been produced. "Strange cargo" anticipates the cinema future.In several respects it's John Huston before John Huston,but with more faith in the human nature. I would go as far as saying the first part is some kind of Bunuel's "la mort en ce jardin"(1956),but a Christian(!) Bunuel.The users who saw the Spanish director 's underrated film will be struck by the analogies between the two works .Gable's and Crawford' characters resemble George Marchal's and Simone Signoret's in "la mort en ce jardin".Or rather the other way about.
The main difference is the indomitable faith in God that Cambreau displays in the whole movie.His face radiates like a Christ,and Ian Hunter outshines the two stars Gable and Crawford.His performance ,subdued and sober,but always mesmerizing ,fascinates.There are unforgettable scenes:the beach ,where he opens the gates of eden for some kind of thief ;the cask of fresh water;his strange predictions;Clark Gable screaming "I'm God!" after throwing him into the water.The movie often verges on fantastic,but a spiritual and sustained fantastic,not drivel such as "IJ and the last crusade".
"Strange cargo" was followed by "mortal storm" ,which iseven more superior to it.Here ,Borzage anticipates on Minnelli "the four horsemen of the Apocalypse" 1961) and Visconti (la caditi degli dei 1969).His love for the human race is still beaming:in a world gone mad where nazi hate oozes everywhere,there will be several Cambreau to heal the wounds :Mr.and Mrs Roth,Martin,Freya and the old Mrs Breitner.
Do not miss his earlier works ,pacifist ones of course :"three comrades " and "no greater glory".Should they give a Nobel price of cinema,Frank Borzage would have been a strong contender in his lifetime.
The story involves a group of convicts and a prostitute who are making a break from a prison island to gain their freedom and new lives, traveling through dangerous jungles to reach the sea and a waiting boat. Although most of them hate each other at the beginning, strange events cause them to re-examine their lives and even make incredible sacrifices for one another along the way.
The cast is generally excellent, particularly Ian Hunter, who plays the good man, Cambreau, who acts as a Godly peacemaker, a Jesus symbol, to the evil, unsympathetic characters who abound in this film. His character proves that even a mere mortal man with a great and firm faith, a man not a priest or a minister, could lead sinful people to repentance with gentle words from the scripture and from his personal examples of good deeds. Either that, or his character was simply a male angel. The Bible says you can meet angels unawares.
This is one reason why I love the movies from old Hollywood; they weren't afraid to tackle subjects about spirituality vs. sin. Today they don't think sin exists anymore in Hollywood (ha!) so there is no need to moralize about anyone's changed behavior.
Joan Crawford had some good scenes in this film, but it takes awhile for the audience to feel sympathy for her. A couple of times I thought I was watching her again in Rain, a film she hated because it didn't do well at the box office. Joan simply does not strike me as a spiritual person, so she really had to ACT to play a remorseful person who changed for the better. It never really rings true though, although she tried her best.
I did enjoy seeing silent film actress Betty Compson, even briefly, as Joan's friend. How sad that more of her minor sound films have survived, but her silent classics have been lost. She was a very big star in her day, but by the 1930's she was forced into mostly B pictures.
Clark Gable seems an uncouth, rough choice for the prisoner Verne, and his last scene in the boat with Cambreau made me laugh, and I don't feel I should have been laughing at such a dramatic moment. He missed the mark for me. Like Joan, I don't think Gable was a spiritual person either, so they were a good match here, in an odd kind of way. I would really have loved to have seen two other actors play these parts.
Perhaps one of the best performances here is from Paul Lukas, as Hessler, the atheist. It's amazing how quickly I can pick out the atheist characters in films; they seem to have a brittle, angry edge to them, a continual chip on their shoulders, they are never at peace, and Paul displayed these qualities in abundance in this film. He is the only character who refuses to change after his encounters with Cambreau. Watch his face in his last scene and close-up. For one instant he is reconsidering the path he will take, sinner or saint, but then shouts "No!" to himself and walks away angrily into his atheist night. Very powerful and realistic, although sad at the same time.
Others here raved about Peter Lorre's performance as "Pig" but it didn't really impress me. His character seemed like just a silly spider in the background, one that should have simply been stepped on right at the beginning, rather than tolerated for too long. He didn't seem threatening enough to me.
Overall, a fascinating, thought provoking film, not for the squeamish. If you are looking for something different, and you are not afraid to face your own prejudices against people of faith, see Strange Cargo.
Crawford dusts off her Sadie Thompson role for her character here. Even with the Code firmly in place it's rather obvious that Crawford is a working girl. She's free, but stranded on that notorious convict island. Gable is essentially the same cynical tough guy he played in so many MGM features at that time.
Ian Hunter is the mysterious stranger among them. These aren't a group of choir boys he comes among. Yet one by one as they die he brings a peace that passeth all understanding as the Good Book says. The escapees all don't die, but all but one come under his influence.
I'm surprised that TCM did choose this one for its theme this June of gays in the cinema. Prison films even during the days of the Code were a bit more open in treatment of homosexuality. The relationship of Albert Dekker and young John Arledge is rather obvious. Dekker in fact chooses a gruesome suicide rather than live without Arledge after he dies.
In fact what's really startling to me was that the heavenly figure that Ian Hunter represents neither condemns suicide or homosexuality. I'm really wondering how the censors of the day let that one slip through.
Paul Lukas has a very interesting part. He's today what we would consider a serial killer, he's married and killed many women for their money. He's cool and cynical and rejects Hunter's entreaties. When Hunter says they will never meet again, the line is loaded with implications.
Strange Cargo is a strange film. It's not bad, but could have been a lot better without code restrictions.
Toward the end of this unlikely story things start to run off the tracks. Verne (Gable) attacks Cambreau on board a boat, and chucks him overboard. Cambreau, with arms outstretched on a piece of lumber as though crucified, thrashes about in the stormy sea. At this point there is no question who his character resembles, but Gable's subsequent motivation and transformation toward the end of the picture do not fit his character's mold, an ending which is at odds with what we have discerned thus far.
Gable is the nominal star but Hunter garners all your attention. Never cared for Joan Crawford but she was good in her role. She played a similar part in "Rain" (1932) but her character here has more depth. Paul Lukas is also good as one of the escapees. "Strange Cargo" is worth your time and gets better as it unfolds. It is worth a watch next time it comes on, which would probably be on TCM.
But the story is a supernatural one so it does not have to conform with reality; anything goes in the plot.
The central theme is about man's free will--the ability to choose a path for himself. Each character is given the opportunity to choose between good and evil, altruism and greed, the commandments and sin.
And there is one character who represents goodness. He seems to facilitate their choices, but mostly he just watches them makes their choices. He is a witness, a representation of someone's concept of an all-seeing being. What is nonsensical is his apparent ability to predict future happenings. This is a representation of an all-knowing being. Without intending it, the author of this plot has created an irreconcilable dichotomy--how does man possess free will if an omniscient being knows what he will do before he does it?
The end result is a plot that defies logic. One might ask how the message or story might be changed if the Cambreau (witness) character were deleted. The other characters could make the same choices without a character predicting their actions. I believe the plot would be even stronger, because the witness is merely a distraction. However, those who like supernatural stories might prefer the movie as it was filmed.
Unfortunately, the studio revised the film when pressured by "decency" groups. So we can not be sure what the studio originally intended.
As someone who views every film as s glimpses into the art of its time and the community psyche, I won't rate this film too lowly. Technically, it has much to recommend it. And I can forgive the few scenes where the heavy-handed religious symbolism is distracting.
This is an extremely enjoyable movie that could have been too preachy if not handled carefully. Not all of the escapees reform or believe in what the truly religious characters are spouting. Ian Hunter's character is truly the most profound, and there will be some debate as to who he is supposed to be in the minds of the original writers. Hunter, in fact, gives the best performance, not too holier than thou, but certainly the most profound. Paul Lukas, the veteran leading man from the early 30's, plays a basically nice but moral-less man who is in prison for marrying women he then poisons. The others (J. Edward Bromberg, Eduardo Ciannelli, John Aldredge) have completely different purposes. As for Peter Lorre, this is one of the most vile characters he has ever played, and no one plays creepy like Lorre.
While this is certainly not a great film, it is lavishly produced, but is ultimately defeated by the melodramatic screenplay, a few one-dimensional characters, and a bravado of pretentiousness. The chemistry between Gable and Crawford is as affecting as it was in their first film 10 years before, although he was happily married to Carole Lombard at this time. Crawford is brave in taking on a role that seemed to go out of style before the production code came in (films such as "Safe in Hell", "Panama Flo", "Anybody's Woman"), but Gable's overly manly character is lacking much likability. Betty Compson, a star from the early 30's, has a small role as Crawford's pal at the beginning of the film; Her career consisted of roles much like what Crawford is playing here.
Clark Gable is just great in this, from a pure entertainment perspective. He spends the whole movie barking at people and being a tough guy. I especially love all of his scenes with Joan Crawford, saying things like "come here baby" and planting one on her. It's a macho cheesy role for Gable but I loved every minute of it. Crawford turns in an underrated performance and looks absolutely stunning. I don't think Joan would ever look this pretty on screen again. The best thing about it is she looks relatively plain here. No shoulder pads, no Groucho Marx eyebrows, no heavy makeup or matronly hairstyles. She's positively radiant.
The cast is amazing. In addition to Gable and Crawford, there's Ian Hunter's brilliantly enigmatic turn as Cambreau. Paul Lukas and Albert Dekker turn in two of the best performances of their careers. Peter Lorre plays the creepy Pig who has eyes on Joan. John Arledge is nicely sympathetic as Dekker's "friend." There's certainly some room for interpretation with that part of the movie. It's a good-looking film. Director Frank Borzage never made an ugly movie that I'm aware of. He epitomized MGM glamour. Great Franx Waxman score, too. Just a phenomenal movie. Deserves much wider recognition than it has received.
It's an interesting film that concentrates on a set of prisoners whose strange cargo comes in the form of prisoner Ian Hunter (Cambreau). He is the all-knowing morality man who allows each prisoner to look at themselves and make their peace before heading to their destinies. He appears from nowhere and has a Christ-like drowning scene at the end of the film where he hangs on to a cross in stormy waters.
At work, we used to have a post messenger called 'Verne' who delivered files to our desks twice a day. He used to turn up on our floor and throw them at you, believing that was an acceptable way to carry out his duty. He'd just fling them at you and if they missed or hit the floor, so be it. Well, the way that Gable's portrayal of his character 'Verne' delivers his dialogue is just as brash. He just throws it at you. I didn't find him particularly likable. Gable plays it very macho and spouts a lot of dialogue with the use of the word "baby" stuck on at the end when he addresses Crawford. Crawford wins the acting award as she provides her character with some depth and you do wonder as to why she has ended up on the island. There seems to be more to her character, whereas Gable is just a meat-head. He has a rivalry with Albert Dekker (Moll) for leadership of the escaping group – guess who wins? Unfortunately, Dekker ruins his role by attempting an English accent from nowhere. No-one English speaks like that, Dekker! I think he was trying cockney?
For me, the most memorable scene was when murderer Paul Lukas (Hessler) realizes his destiny. I think the film could have been better if it had concentrated on his character and his unwillingness to play by Hunter's rules. As it is, we get a love story playing against this conflict of good versus bad. It makes for a happy Hollywood ending with a morality message, but you've got to give full marks to Lukas. Hunter is just not relevant. Another good scene occurs on a boat to the mainland when Gable has to try the infected water. I would have just refused as it means certain death. How will he get out of that one? Perhaps he'll just keep shouting dialogue in a cocky manner, as he does in a climatic scene with Ian Hunter during a storm. Terrible acting from Gable.
Overall, I liked this film as it gives a twist to the story of escaped convicts by throwing in a religious redemption element in the form of Hunter. But, it's a shame we didn't concentrate more on the story of Lukas. At the end, you can decide who really wins. Not many are left with their freedom.
A final pairing that showed them off well and was worthy of their talent. Neither are at their very best sure and both did better films, but 'Strange Cargo' still manages to be interesting and entertaining despite its flaws. It is understandable why people find 'Strange Cargo' a strange film, in a way it is and it is not hard to see where people are coming from with their criticisms, but strange (not a positive adjective a good deal of the time with me) in an intriguing way.
'Strange Cargo' is not without flaws. Do agree that it does get heavy-handed at times, especially towards the end with the allegorical themes being laid on rather too thickly and the spiritual redemption angle could have been made clearer.
Parts of the story do strain credibility and some of the dialogue could have been tighter and more subtle.
The main reason to see 'Strange Cargo' however is the cast, all more than game in their roles. Both Gable and Crawford are very good, Gable has charisma and tough intensity aplenty and by Crawford standards her performance here is quite understated (am not knocking her as an actress by the way, actually like her a lot). Their chemistry sizzles as it should. Lorre is deliciously loathsome if somewhat underused and Lukas gave me the chills. Dekker has fun and Ian Hunter makes an interesting character out of one that could have been potentially bland.
Borzage directs with his usual sensitivity as well as an edge, don't usually associate him with this sort of film but he does very well and directs attentively if sometimes lacking the extra dramatic punch. It's a good looking film and Franz Waxman provides a haunting and moody music score in his usual unmistakable style. The script does provoke thought mostly and the story is compelling, never dull, with its starkness still quite raw, some of the content was daring back then and one can see why.
To conclude, interesting and entertaining. 7/10 Bethany Cox
Clark Gable plays André Verne, a rough and tough Devil's Island inmate. He sees saloon girl, Julie (Joan Crawford) while working on the docks and the sparks fly. He has to have her, even grabbing her well-exposed leg. André escapes to her room just to be with her. But, Julie has no choice, and must turn him in.
This is the quintessential Joan Crawford movie, with her typical tough-talking, Sadie Thompson type character. I know that she's supposed to be without make-up, but she still comes off pretty glamorous despite roughing it in the jungle swamps and lost at sea.
Both people are lost souls who are trying to escape their lot in life, but are not given too many alternative chances, or choices in life. Julie is fleeing the amorous advances of M'sieu Pig (Peter Lorre) by moving in with a miner in the jungle, and André is escaping with some other hardened convicts led by the most dangerous Moll (Albert Dekker) who would stab you in the back as help you (even though he has a soft spot for Dufond (John Arledge). There's also Hessler (Paul Lukas) who marries and murders rich women.
A stranger walks into the prison, Chambreau (Ian Hunter) and tags along with the convicts. He's somehow included in the escape and has a weird effect on many of the men, including André.
Naturally, as in most Clark Gable movies, the love of a good woman was what turned him around. But, in this particular case, there's the mysterious Chambreau who has challenged André's conscience to redeem himself and do the right thing.
There are actually 3 different stories being told here: Gable and the other escapees, Crawford and her exodus, and what is between Gable and Crawford. And for much of the movie, the 3 tales are separate, making each more interesting. And then there's the allegorical figure of Cambreau, brilliantly played by Ian Hunter in one of his very best roles.
There are some wonderful scenes here, including Gable falling into quicksand and great special effects during the storms at sea...for starters. And, thankfully the print being shown on TCM is extremely crisp and clean.
The cast here really is quite good. Joan Crawford doesn't overact here...really conducts herself quite well...appears very plain and nearly without makeup most of the movie. Gable is Gable, which is enough in any movie, but here it's interesting to note that this is such a very different film and character from the little flick he made just before this one -- "Gone With The Wind". Incidentally, it's interesting that Crawford got top billing here over Gable! As mentioned, Ian Hunter has one of his very best roles in this film. Peter Lorre has an interesting character...sleazy...essential at the beginning and ending of the film. Paul Lukas is an actor I am often impressed with, though not so much here...not bad, but not outstanding as he often was. Albert Dekker is believable and restrained as the most evil among the prisoners escaping; I wondered if there was the implication of homosexuality in his character and his relationship with a younger prisoner. J. Edward Bromberg has an interesting little role as a sniveling prisoner, although his importance wanes through much of the film. Eduardo Ciannelli is one of those character actors who was always so good, and is here. John Arledge is rather forgettable. Frederick Worlock is convincing as the warden.
The role of Ian Hunter...hmmmm...was he Christ? I think the answer is yes. Note in particular when he is floundering in the sea...he holds onto the piece of wood almost as if it is the cross. Very interesting.
Despite Hunter's odd character, the leads are Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in their final film pairing. She plays a floozy of sorts and Clark plays a variation on the exact same character he often plays--the cynical anti-hero who isn't really evil but is skirting the edges of the law. Unfortunately, his part isn't new and if he hadn't done so many similar parts, his character would have been a lot more interesting.
Overall, the direction and acting are fine, but the often predictability and sappiness of the script (despite the Hunter character) prevent this from being a better picture.
FYI--Another film about escapees from Devil's Island that was made only a few years later was Bogart's PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES. Interestingly enough, Peter Lorre and Eduardo Ciannelli appear in both films. Of the two, PASSAGE TO MAREILLES is a slightly better picture.