Strange Cargo (1940)

Hindsight is essential to understanding Strange Cargo. In the moment, the lengthy setup branches off into a number of directions that just coincidentally happen to occur in the same place. But as the film builds to the second half, everything begins to come to a head, and what felt like wasted time suddenly becomes essential to making the rest of the film work.

An adaptation of Richard Sales novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, Strange Cargo follows the odd duo of Julie (Joan Crawford), a jaded tourist, and André Verne (Clark Gable), a renowned thief, in prison on the exotic island. At the same time, the film follows a number of convicts planning an escape plan, an escape André plans to hijack after he gets Julie in trouble and she is ordered to leave the island.

What initially appear to be a number of ancillary side characters become more prominent and important in the second half. The dynamics of the group, the individual interests and personalities clash when the escape plan becomes a test of endurance and survivals. Thematically, it’s in the same vein as The Grey, men faced with the inevitability of death, all reacting in different ways.

But beyond just a grapple for survival, the film also questions what happens to people when the dynamic of caring for other people comes into play. The smug, self-serving André begins to use his macho guise to protect Julie from the harsh realities of their survival while Cambreau (Ian Hunter), consistently risks life and limb not only save others, but also to make a point that not anyone is nearly as animalistic, tough or jaded as they appear to be.

While not the richest of characters, the performances in the film tease out a lot out of these characters. Clark Gable is his expected self, a look of childlike mischief in his eye and a bit of a brutish nature. But up against Joan Crawford, sparks fly. She stands toe to toe with him, just as relentless, biting and tough, so much so that she gives the performance of the film.

Ian Hunter is able to play a character that should come across as a little bit too heavy-handed and symbolic with just a hint of what could be smugness to make his motivations uncertain. Is he just playing a game with people or does he truly care? And Peter Lorre, who plays a sleazy informant known as The Pig gives what might be his most grovelingly sleazy performance, no small feat given he made a career out of it.

Per the Borzage style, this leads to the last act of an incredible expression of love. This might be one of his most complex and detailed movements, involving a number of characters all with their own motives, perspectives and part to play in leading to the final moments. It’s possibly his best ending from a storytelling perspective.

Strange Cargo still weathers the rough seas of a first act that doesn’t work in the moment. Hindsight makes its purpose clear, but still makes the audience feel adrift until things kick off in the second half. And what a half it is. With a stronger, more succinct opening, Strange Cargo could have been an stunning film, instead, it stands as a strong, albert uneven, venture.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing