Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

The locked room mystery is a staple when it comes to detective/mystery movies. It involves a confined space in which an event takes place (usually a crime of some sort) which seems impossible within the constraints of the confined space and/or where vital ingredients of the event (usually the body, the perpetrator or the weapon, or a combination thereof) have seemingly disappeared from the confined space. A well-known and early movie to depict this type of mystery is the classic Hitchcock movie 'The Lady Vanishes' from 1938, which is placed on a moving train. In the case of 'Dangerous Crossing' a person disappears on a cruiseship, and is nowhere to be found, and apart from one person nobody seems to know about the missing person. The story was based on a radio play, 'Cabin B-13', which was written by John Dickson Carr, who was very adept at this type of mystery and he wrote several radio plays in this genre. The radio play was written for the popular Suspense radio play series, which also hosted the radio play after which the movie 'Sorry, Wrong Number'  was made. Leo Townsend adapted 'Cabin B-13' into a screenplay, Joseph M. Newman directed the movie and Joseph LaShelle did the cinematography.

At the start of the movie, newlyweds Ruth Bowman Stanton (Jeanne Crain) and John Bowman (Carl Betz) board a cruiseship for a honeymoon. Due to the large amount of people trying to board the ship, they don't board it at quite the same time with several people entering the cruiseship after Ruth and before Bowman. After they find their cabin, B-16, Bowman goes off to give some money to the purser to store in a safe, and tells Ruth to go to the main deck and watch the cruiseship leave the harbor and meet him at the bar in 15 minutes afterwards. But he never shows up at the bar. When Ruth returns to their cabin to see if John is there, she finds the room locked. After she has an attendant open the room for her, she finds the room empty, without their luggage. It turns out it was never booked for this trip, and Ruth is booked into room B-18 instead, under her maiden name, and by herself. And her luggage, but not John's, is already in B-18. Ruth is flabbergasted and slightly worried, trying to convince everybody she did not come by herself, that they were really in B-16 before, and asking people where her husband is. She becomes increasingly hysterical and frantic and eventually the ship's doctor, Dr. Paul Manning (Michael Rennie), is called in. Despite nobody knowing anything about her husband, or seeing her board the ship with him, he is helpful and while he doesn't fully believe Ruth, he tries to check her story as much as he can. The captain entrusts her with him, provided he keeps a close eye on her, because he doesn't want her throwing a scene and making the trip unpleasant for the other passengers. He doesn't believe her story, also because she has no wedding ring nor can remember vital details of the wedding (due to it happening so fast and in a random wedding chapel church by the side of a road in Maryland, in fact they'd only met a month before), but Manning doesn't let her out of his sights. Ruth finds herself in an even bigger mystery when John calls her in her room that evening and says he cannot make himself known to the crew but wants to see her. As Ruth struggles to find out why John has to keep in hiding Manning stays on her tail, and eventually the twist is revealed what is going on with John and how involved Ruth is in John's plans. In the meantime, it's hard for Ruth, and the viewer, to know who she can and cannot trust, and she is slowly driven into madness.

At various points during the movie, characters are introduced which are potentially involved in one way or another with the mystery of the disappearing husband. Several scenes can be interpreted multiple ways, suggesting that there's some sort of conspiracy going on, involving a German-speaking old man with a cane. In some of these instances, perfectly reasonable explanations are given later, but ofcourse, can these explanations be trusted? Ruth does not know who to trust or not, especially after John's call in which he warns her to not trust anybody, and she becomes increasingly worried and alarmed. She isn't even sure about Dr. Manning, whether he's an ally or not. But he also seems to be the only person who's trying to help her.

Jeanne Crain, who plays Ruth Bowman Stanton, is a beautiful actress who gives her character a pretty soft edge. Ruth seems slightly hapless and naive and a bit too hysterical at times, but it's also understandable that she's doubting everything and everybody, especially after John tells her so during his first call. At various points in the movie, there's a voice-over where she's talking to herself inside her head, mostly to tell herself to not trust anybody and play along with the people around her so she does not raise any suspicion. This device to keep the viewer informed of her state of mind and reasonings for certain actions seems a little redundant and unnecessary as it is usually pretty clear why she does something. On the other hand, it is a good way to keep the viewer involved with her, also because the majority of the scenes have Ruth in 'em. In that respect, credit has to be given to Crain for keeping the viewer interested in her and the story.

Dr. Paul Manning is played by Michael Rennie. He's most famous for playing Klaatu in the sci-fi classic 'The Day The Earth Stood Still'. He does a nice job here, albeit a somewhat bland one. He does have a somewhat striking face (I didn't know him beforehand and the first comparison that came to mind was a cross between Jack Palance and Leonard Nimoy). He plays his character with a very distinguished and calm demeanor, becoming of a seasoned doctor who's seen it all. Dr. Manning seems to see Ruth as more than a patient after a while, even telling her at some point that maybe he wishes there was no Mr. Bowman. But the way he acts, you'd never know it, he's just too reserved, not even his eyes really show his affection for Ruth.

There's also Kay Prentiss (Marjorie Hoshelle), a wealthy single woman who's been married several times and has a good line during her first encounter with Ruth: 'Husbands can get lost so easily, I know'. They meet as Ruth is standing on the deck, waving at the people on the harbor when the ship is sailing off. They bump into each other several times afterwards, including one encounter which gives Ruth reason to believe Kay knows more than she's telling. It is kind of weird how Kay continues to be friendly towards Ruth and treats her as a friend when during most encounters Ruth brushes off Kay or even openly ignores her.

Oddly enough one of the best part of the movie to me is the monotonous & droning foghorn sounding every few seconds during the night scenes, which creates a very ominous & tension-filled atmosphere, it has an almost foreboding quality. It's a simple but effective and dramatic effect. Add to that the thick, soup-like fog making ghostlike shadows out of anybody who dares enter it (before they disappear completely into the dense soup), and you've got some great and atmospheric noir scenes. During some of the more thrilling scenes the music takes over from the foghorn but continues with the monotonous droning theme, again with very effective results.

Another interesting visual, besides the fog, is the moment Ruth gets handed a telegram that was sent to the doctor, from the head of her dad's company. It explains her dad died 4 months ago and Ruth has been seeing a doctor since. The last sentence says that neither the housekeeper nor the doctor know anything about John Bowman and are certain Ruth is not married. What's so interesting about the shot is that the light shines on the telegram she's holding in such a way that this last line is in the light while the rest of the telegram is in the shadows. It gives this line, which confirms the belief of everybody else on the ship that Ruth's lost it, an even more damning quality.

'Dangerous Crossing' was shot on a pretty tight budget in 19 days and re-used some of the sets used for 'Titanic', which had already been re-used for 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'. That's how you churn out movies, conveyor-belt style. Thankfully, and because of re-using sets from A-movies, this movie doesn't feel like cheap at all. It's not too long at 76 minutes, but it doesn't look or feel cheap, and it does what it's supposed to do, and it does so pretty well. It was also one of the last cheap B-movies that Fox made, with the rise of television the need for 2nd features on a double-bill diminished.

The cinematography was done by Joseph LaShelle, a very good cameraman who had won an Oscar for his work on 'Laura' in 1944 and who also did the cinematography on some other film noirs by Fox, namely 'Fallen Angel' in 1945, 'Road House' in 1948 and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' in 1950. As mentioned before, his use of fog in the outside night scenes is very noir, even if the movie as a whole isn't. I don't know whose choice it was, but in several scenes the camera moves up and down, slowly and almost unnoticable. It's a neat little trick to make the viewer feel as tho he/she is also on the ship, as it moves across the waves.

This movie is not exactly film noir, it's more of a straight-forward mystery movie and only has some of the visual characteristics of a film noir. But it is entertaining nonetheless and despite some characterizations which seem quite outdated now, the movie is well-made and clever.

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