Strange Cargo - 1940
Strange Cargo - Released March 1, 1940. Directed by Frank Borzage
This odd movie based on the bestseller of 1936 Not Too Narrow... Not Too Deep*, is a prison escape film that's not really about getting out, but changing the reason why you're in prison in the first-place. Director Borzage has on his hands a tale of ten escaped convicts (many are murderers) and a genial but mysterious 11th man named Jean Cambreau (he appears to be a convict, too. This impression doesn't last long.) Borzage's melodrama here is about the self-centered and nihilistic Verne (Clark Gable), weary career floozy Julie (Joan Crawford) and the convicts forced to face up to why they need each other on a desperate water-and-jungle trek to freedom from a South American French penal colony.
In the case of Cambreau (played by Ian Hunter), he doesn't appear to actually need anyone, but a significant exception is one brief instance when Clark has to provide rescue in a scene that predates a similar scene in Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.
As Strange Cargo progresses, the convicts learn that Cambreau always knows what's about to happen. He also knows why people are doing what they are doing better than they themselves know. This proves a relief for some of the convicts and quite vexing for the others, particularly the most religious and unchangeable member - Telez, played by Eduardo Ciannelli.
Peter Lorre isn't one of the convicts but plays an important role as M'sieu Pig. Like many a Lorre role, everyone is supposed to despise (with good reason) this character, but he proves useful when the chips are down, unless he is trying to sell someone out to the authorities, which is his usual full-time occupation. Incidentally, Pig is always pining for Julie, and trying to manufacture some situation that will get her to sell-out to him. Eventually, he will get his chance.
It's hard-headed (and hearted) Verne that is the real challenge in the reformation sweepstakes. The crew of ten escapees present additional difficulties, too, however, it appears to be nothing that Monsieur Cambreau can't handle. Not even death proves too difficult for this clever stranger.
*Not Too Narrow... Not Too Deep by Richard Sale
Joan Crawford Films
Original Page May 16, 2016
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