sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-05-16 05:34 am
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Do I look like a god to you?

Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo (1940) lives up to its name. It's like a prison break directed by Elizabeth Goudge. I know I enjoyed it, but what on earth.

It begins like an adventure film, complete with scene-setting titles: "Deep in the Guianas . . . a penal colony for men set aside to be forgotten by the world, to whom the present, the future and the past are one—for men without hope . . ." Clark Gable's Verne is one such man, a tough thief with a history of failed escapes and punishing stints in solitary; he emerges from the latest wincing but unbroken, retorting to the warden who counsels him to serve out his brief remaining time quietly, "I'm a thief by profession, not a convict. There's nothing worth stealing around here except freedom—and I'm after some of that." Detailed to longshoreman's work on the wharves, he meets Joan Crawford's Julie, a Marseilles prostitute fetched up as a bar girl on the island for reasons as murky as Verne's own past. They have a stinging anti-chemistry that pays off in a kiss like a mutual insult later that night when Verne evades the guards for just long enough to sneak into Julie's quarters. She turns him in. He's returned to the general population, where he discovers an old enemy planning to break out with anyone who can pony up the cash for a share in the boat waiting up the coast. She's ordered off the island, though without enough money for her own passage she's forced to rely on the dubious chivalry of strangers rather than accept the price-tagged attentions of the prison informant played with circumspect sleaziness by Peter Lorre, known to all as "M'sieu Pig." By the time their paths cross again in the jungle, though neither of them knows it yet, both Julie and Verne are already entangled in something a little stranger than your average jailbreak, increasingly presided over—though not apparently controlled—by the most enigmatic of the escaped convicts, the easygoing, compassionate, almost certainly supernatural Cambreau. He's played by Ian Hunter, who got my attention for life in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940) and is fully as good here in a role that sounds frankly stupid when baldly described. By the second act I started wondering if he was the Angel of Death. I finished the picture pretty sure he was an avatar of God.

Not Christ, though, which is one of the reasons Strange Cargo interests rather than repels me. Whatever process of regeneration the film is chronicling, it's not as direct or as obvious as a Second Coming—it can't be or the story's peculiar grace would collapse into that particularly nauseating brand of portentous syrup that characterizes so much Production Code Christianity. If it once winked at its audience, if it yielded to special effects or declamation or, God forbid, whimsy, it would be unwatchable. Cambreau works because whatever else he may prove to be, he's mortal. He has a sense of humor; he gets tired, thirsty, looks like hell after a week of trekking the jungle and becalmed drifting. He looks like Ian Hunter, which means that he's got a pleasant enough face, but nothing head-turning, certainly nothing that suggests a hotline to the otherworld. He seems to know things, but none of them individually is beyond human ken for a perceptive watcher of people and the weather—only in aggregate does the reliability of his guidance start to feel spooky, to the point where one of his fellow-convicts accuses him of being the Devil. (That's a different jailbreak movie.) He never pushes his authority or even his opinions, never takes part in the macho jockeying that preoccupies Verne and his comrades. He says everything as though it means exactly what it sounds like. Even when you're sure he's double-speaking, you'll never prove it from his manner, which is both seriously interested in everyone and everything around him and not taking anything too dramatically. He appears out of a flat white afternoon in the prison yard, taking Verne's place as the thirty-sixth man1 to return from the wharfside work detail; when the guard shouts at him to hurry up, he replies absently, "I must have fallen behind. There's so much to do out there." What we chiefly see him do over the course of the escape is help the other prisoners, variously taken out by snakes, heat, sharks, each other, through their dying: their anger, their shame, their regrets and their hopes and their terror that it's too late for any of it to mean anything. He takes up the same conversations with the living, if they want them. Some of it is philosophy, some of it is theology, a lot of it seems to work like therapy. He asks people the kinds of questions they ask themselves. He rarely gives them answers they couldn't work out eventually, either, but it makes a difference to hear it from someone else. Even his climactic argument with Verne—explicitly over his own life, implicitly over the other man's soul—doesn't sound like a psychomachia; it sounds like the classic are we going to talk about it or are we going to do it. "Or does it take something to kill me you haven't got?" And indeed, after Verne has risked death himself diving over the side of the storm-tossed boat to save the man he angrily roundhoused into a raging sea, half-drowned Cambreau looks up at his attempted murderer-rescuer, who is trying to pretend with tears in his eyes that he did not just give the muttered, telltale eulogy "You're an awful sucker to do things like that for rats like me," and he smiles. It's not patronizing, it's not victorious, it's not even beatific, it's just pure, exhausted, shared happiness and a little as if he is gently teasing Verne: guess it takes one sucker to recognize another, hey?

Only in the last few seconds does the film overplay its hand, as the fisherman watching Cambreau disappear into the rain-glinting, net-hung darkness at the back of his boat makes the reverent sign of the cross over his heart. I guess MGM couldn't let it go without a little syrup. It's annoying. We don't need the shorthand; we have already witnessed the thing itself. But the fact that I can say this about a movie in which there are no miracles and very little preaching is fascinating to me. The most prominent uses of a Bible in Strange Cargo, beyond a graveside reading of the bit about "the temple of God" from 1 Corinthians (which provokes the derisive remark from Verne quoted in the title of this post), are the transmission of a map carefully copied onto its flyleaf and the most passive-aggressive application of the Song of Songs I have ever encountered, sarcastically addressed to a weary, bedraggled Julie by Verne on their first night alone in the jungle (it makes her cry anyway, imagining a life in which someone could compare her to pomegranates and honey and mean it). The script itself mocks the idea that Cambreau will be some kind of charismatic Bible-belter: "Well, why don't you start reading out of that book and I'll jump off the boat? Don't give me any of that sister-come-to-salvation look, I'm not buying any! I know the routine. It starts out with a prayer and ends up with a Bible in one hand and me in the other." Later in the doldrums of the voyage, Julie will snag her fingers into the raggedy leg of his canvas trousers and pull him down beside her so that she can talk to him, slantwise, about all the things she's not talking about with the person she most wants to: "You'd know I could want a lot of things if Verne were around. But he'd have to want them, too." This time when she weeps, Cambreau will stroke her hair, as gently and carefully as a cat that has just begun to trust him, and because he means nothing more than comfort by it she'll let him. It is not an extraordinary gesture, just a reasonable human one. I don't happen to believe in Cambreau as a version of God, but if you must have them in your worldview, the kind with a sense of humor and a good understanding of boundaries seems like a good start to me. He doesn't redeem any of the characters, subject-verb-object. He gives them the space to change themselves. Whether they take or leave it is their call.

I may have to be more awake to explain why any of this reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge. The deep Christian bedrock of the story is part of it, the way a lot of ordinary things happen that are yet concerned with the saving of people's souls—even if the language is never used, just as I can't remember the dialogue ever mentioning Christ—with the ways that people choose to make their lives better, to take responsibility for themselves and care of others, to do the hard things that yield joy instead of the quick gratifying things that feed right back into the same aimless holding patterns that don't need to be a French colonial prison in order to feel like iron bars and hell. There are echoes and flickers of the core myth, no straight re-runs. Cambreau may be the movement of God in the world, but according to him so is the good in anyone. I finished the movie thinking that if Borzage instead of Victor Saville had been handed Green Dolphin Street (1947), it would have turned out a lot weirder and a lot more like its source novel. (Alas, he wasn't and it is not.) The Catholic Legion of Decency apparently fainted in coils and condemned the picture out of hand, which I feel was missing the point; I am pretty sure that most practicing Christians would get more out of it than I did, at least in terms of recognition and reinforcement. It was similarly banned in Boston, ditto. I'll have to see what its reputation is today. I had started to back off Borzage—I loved Moonrise (1948), boggled at Seven Sweethearts (1942), and the best I can say about Hearts Divided (1936) is that Claude Rains makes a really entertaining Napoleon—but Strange Cargo is in all ways a counterintuitive enough film that I am curious about his other work again. It has cinematography to speak of, in the nascent expressionist style that turned noir in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940); it has a good supporting cast, almost all of whom I have wildly overlooked in this appraisal. Gable is himself, but Crawford is smarter and flintier than her archetype calls for and I appreciate it. I hope I haven't exhausted all the really good Ian Hunter. This strange delivery brought to you by my changing backers at Patreon.

1. Borzage was raised Catholic and the spiritual values of Strange Cargo are definitely Christian, but if you tipped this story just a little, I could almost accept Cambreau as a tzaddik.
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)

[personal profile] davidgillon 2017-05-16 10:17 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, interesting, and doubly so because I'd thought about the Tzadik Nistarim before I got to your footnote
genarti: sunbeams lighting yellow flowers, surrounded by rocks and darkness ([misc] break in the clouds)

[personal profile] genarti 2017-05-17 04:12 am (UTC)(link)
Oh gosh. What a fascinating, cool review of what sounds like a seriously unusual movie.
nenya_kanadka: Wonder Woman poster (kneeling with sword) (Default)

[personal profile] nenya_kanadka 2017-05-17 05:31 am (UTC)(link)
That sounds absolutely fascinating. And, as an ex-Christian who can appreciate themes like that but is sick to the gills of explicit wink-and-nod treatments of that kind of thing, sounds a lot like something I could be into.

asakiyume: (God)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-05-17 11:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I would really like to see this. What Cambreau does for people is what we should do for one another always, to the best of our ability--there's no need for religion in that, or there can be religion in that, and the religion could be Christianity or--as your footnote suggests--it could be something else.
asakiyume: (definitely definitely)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-05-19 03:51 pm (UTC)(link)
(Italics are good too, heh)