Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Sealed Cargo (1951)

Director: Alfred L. Werker                               Writers: Dale Van Every & Oliver Garrett
Film Score: Roy Webb                                    Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Starring: Dana Andrews, Carla Balenda, Claude Rains and Philip Dorn

Set in 1943 during World War Two, Sealed Cargo is something of a throwback to the war films of the previous decade. But it still works, primarily because the motivations of both the protagonists and antagonists are taken as a given, an assumption that allows the film to dispense with having to explain them to the audience. Thus the film spends all of its time concentrating on how the hero is going to defeat the villain rather than why. In one of those instances that makes one groan, the screenplay was based on a novel by Edmund Gilligan called . . . wait for it . . . The Gaunt Woman. That’s right, not The Thin Man but apparently something similar. In truth, the story does wind up being more of a detective yarn than a strict war film. Director Alfred Werker was no stranger to mysteries, either, having helmed the first Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film for Fox in 1939. Also on hand are noir veterans Dana Andres and Claude Rains, relative newcomer Carla Balenda, and Dutch character actor Philip Dorn. The photography by George Diskant is excellent, and the miniatures and rear projection are extremely well done, which is no surprise since RKO was the studio that made King Kong. The film also benefits from the presence of studio’s best composer, Roy Webb, adding a score that is not so much memorable as it is effective.

The film begins with superimposed text extolling the virtues of small victories during wartime rather than grand heroic acts, and then the story opens in Gloucester, Mass. in 1943 with Dana Andrews ending his workday on the docks unloading his fishing boat. The great Whit Bissell puts in a brief appearance early on as a union boss. With the war on there are just no available men to go out on Andrews’ boat. Andrews then makes a visit to Arthur Shields. His sons are in the war, and with so much less competition Andrews is set to make a pile of money--if he can get some deck hands. Carla Balenda shows up looking to pay for a ride to Newfoundland, and finally Philip Dorn walks in. Andrews hires Dorn, but with Nazi subs trolling the Grand Banks, he refuses Balenda. The next morning Andrews finds Balenda waiting on his boat. She wants to visit her father, and so the captain finally gives in. The first sign of trouble is when Dorn is talking to another Danish crewmember, Eric Feldary, and Dorn seems to know a little too much about Nazi activity in Denmark. After making it through a storm the next day, the ship winds up in a fogbank that evening. Soon they hear gunfire, but they can’t see anything. Then Feldary tells Andrews that someone has sabotaged the radio, pouring acid on the tubes and wires. Feldary also tells him his suspicions about Dorn, and Andrews believes him. But before he can get any real information out of him, the boat comes in earshot of a German submarine firing its guns.

Andrews believes the sub has sunk a fishing boat and that there are probably survivors in dories being shelled. In looking for them, however, they run across an apparently abandoned schooner. Andrews takes the two Danes to investigate, along with first mate Morgan Farley. The ship is Danish, and its name means “The Gaunt Woman.” After boarding and conducting a search, the only man they find alive is the captain, Claude Rains. The ship’s manifest, it turns out, is the key to the title of the film. Andrews decides to tow the ship back to Newfoundland, but he also has a bad feeling that it’s exactly what the Nazis want. In the end it’s a taut little thriller that works well. The suspicion about Dorn infuses the first half of the story and keeps the tension up, and the anxiety ratchets further when the suspicion shifts to Balenda. But before long it seems as if everyone is a suspect. Andrews is essentially playing the part of a detective--and Rains even says as much to him at one point, with Balenda as the love interest. Also in the cast is Onslow Stevens as Balenda’s father, a wounded ship commander, also known to horror fans as the mad doctor from House of Dracula. The last third of the picture is fairly conventional, though it’s not entirely predictable, and manages to be suspenseful right up to the end. The film naturally brings to mind comparisons with Edge of Darkness, but while Sealed Cargo is definitely a lower budget affair it has a certain appeal all its own and is definitely worth watching.

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