Archive for Strange Cargo

The Look 2: Lukas Rejects

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , on July 30, 2016 by dcairns


Reminder: I’ve embarked on an occasional series about moments when actors look at the camera.

A tricky one — I wasn’t sure if I was remembering this correctly.

But when I think of actors looking at the camera, I always think of Paul Lukas in STRANGE CARGO (1940), or STRANGE FILM as surely somebody else must have called it.

Frank Borzage’s films were often religious, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call it, but this one is a full-blown allegory, with Ian Hunter unusually effective as the Christ figure, who is part of an all-star group of escaped convicts including Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Peter Lorre.

Lukas plays a serial killer of women — for profit. He leaves the group midway through the film to take up his profession again. Hunter has been on at him to repent of his sinful ways. Lukas leaves, but after doing so, when he is alone apart from US — he turns, glances about in the direction of the camera — eyes flickering wildly so that for a moment I was afraid my memory was playing me false and he wasn’t going to do it — and then he looks right down the barrel of the lens and says, very firmly —


Borzage’s camera, which has been following Lukas, seems to have become briefly identified with the eye of God. This is Lukas’ final rejection of the grace of God. Delivered to us. As if we were all, collectively, the best stand-in for the deity that Borzage could think of.

So that’s nice of him.


From the Lighthouse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 8, 2016 by dcairns


I love lighthouse movies in principle — it always feels like they’re going to be excellent, all fog and dark and isolation and tension. And then, if you’re lucky, you get THE PHANTOM LIGHT, or TOWER OF EVIL if you’re slightly less lucky.

But CAPE FORLORN, by E.A. Dupont, (previewed here two days ago) manages to combine the required suspense and close-quarters conflict with a real cinematic vision, inflected through the somewhat clunky technology of 1931 British filmmaking (Dupont managed a simultaneous French version, with Harry Baur, and a German, now lost, with Fritz Kortner and Conrad Veidt, apparently lost). The impressive opening long take is doubtless identical in all three cuts, since it doesn’t feature the main cast nor any dialogue.

Fay Compton exits the mildly sleazy night club environment of the opening, where she may be some kind of bar girl, to marry a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. Bored to tears on the wretched rock, she tarts herself up nice for hubby Frank Harvey (who wouldn’t have had a chance with her if he hadn’t already written the movie). Fiona was excited by the 30s makeup presented in loving product-shot close-up ~




A bit of research gave her the history of Mouson’s Lilac Cream and even found the ad which Fay is trying to look like.



“You looked better before, love,” was Fiona’s disappointed verdict on the made-over Compton. But when Harvey wipes the muck off her face and throws the kit out the window, Fiona was properly outraged. You can’t do that to a woman’s products! With Fiona cheering her one, Fay runs into the corky arms of Karloffian bit of rough Edmund Willard, but soon throws him over for a sexy stowaway. Well, Ian Hunter was always a bit fleshy for a sexpot, but he’s the best-looking thing with a Y chromosome on this ragged outpost, and a girl has to live. Maybe this film could play on a loop with Borzage’s STRANGE CARGO so that Hunter could get washed away and then washed up, repeatedly.


Soon there’s a highly uncomfortable love quadrangle, with Fay as the centre of attention, and Hunter’s dark past clouding over the already-bleak horizon. Dupont directs the hell out of all this, his camera floating up and down the winding stairs, observing from a lofty, anxious height, while the soundtrack offers a constant throb of surf, or wind, or shrieking gulls. In the year or so since ATLANTIC, the sound crew have learned how to mix, so that now every scene is oppressively loaded with atmos, an approach which would be abandoned as soon as it was begun. So CAPE FORLORN is a mutant of the earl sound cinema, an experiment that “didn’t work” but which, seen with modern eyes, works beautifully, if strangely.

As the movie’s sex fulcrum, Fay Compton is an odd bit of casting, with her soulful yet ovine features, but she was always a sympathetic, sincere performer, and it’s a pleasure to see her in this early role.



E.A. Dupont throws focus like a boss!

Network have released this offbeat masterpiece of DVD, and you should buy it if you like sexual tension and lighthouses and cinema.

A Wing and a Prayer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2008 by dcairns

His Ward is his Bond.

So, I watched Frank Borzage’s CHINA DOLL, which has a character played by Ward Bond with my name (Father Cairns), although I wasn’t actually aware of this until I checked the IMDb because nobody seemed able to pronounce the name. Most of the cast seemed to be using the Irish name “Kearns”, whereas from Victor Mature’s slobbery great mouth the name emerged as more like “Corns”.

You don’t get many Cairnses in the movies, so that was something. Curiously, I just came across a fictional Cairns in Christopher Fowler’s sixth Bryant and May mystery, The Victoria Vanishes. Since Fowler has been known to drop by here, I wondered if he drew the name from life. But since CHINA DOLL was made ten years before I was born, I can’t claim to have inspired that one.

The name Cairns, in religious circles, is mostly associated with a namesake of mine from the Church of Scotland, but Bond’s character is apparently Catholic (he has nuns in tow, one of whom plays Frankie and Johnny on sax for comic relief). Borzage himself was a member of some unusual Catholic branch of Masonry, or something odd like that.

The film, a WWII-set romance between airman Victor Mature (“a melting waxwork of Dean Martin” — B. Kite) and poor Chinese girl Li Hua Li (“introduced” to the West in this film, then back to making films in Hong Kong and Taiwan for the next twenty years, making her one of the more successful people to have been “introduced”). Blind drunk one night, misanthropic Big Victor accidentally buys Li as bonded slave for three months, falls in love, and reconnects with humanity.

The script has nice lines: when Vic’s colonel (Denver Dukes of Hazzard Pyle) tells him that life on earth isn’t so bad, the boozy curmudgeon retorts, “Everybody leaves it sooner or later.” But Mature plays the character as too soft, so that his conversion lacks force. Shot in America with stock footage enhancement, the film is minus atmosphere and shadow. It’s a shame this weaker effort has surfaced on DVD when so little Borzage is available, although it finally looks like the emotionally exhausting masterpiece SEVENTH HEAVEN is being released, and another silent classic, THE RIVER, is out in its incomplete glory.

Borzage is going to be one of my very favourite filmmakers once I’ve seen enough of his work. MOONRISE is simply one of the greatest films I know, and STREET ANGEL and SEVENTH HEAVEN are terrific. Between the silent movies and the late blossoming of MOONRISE, Borzage seemed to get distracted with a lot of inappropriate and mediocre assignments from MGM, and CHINA DOLL is a production of John Wayne’s Batjac company, so it keeps veering between manly combat and Borzagian spirituality and sentiment.

Intercut baby playing with dog tags with Dad blasting Japs out of the sky. John Woo, take note.

While I normally agree with Chairman Mao somewhat on the subject of religion, I find Borzage’s take on it sufficiently idiosyncratic and personal to be engaging — STRANGE CARGO (1940) must be the weirdest tract ever filmed. In one scene, serial killer Paul Lukas, rejecting an offer of salvation, walks off into the jungle, then spots Borzage’s camera, which approaches him hopefully… “No!” snaps Lukas, and storms off, disappearing from the film unpunished, presumably to continue his murderous lifestyle. A simply wonderful, chilling, utterly peculiar moment.

Patrons: as interracial sex is taking place, the management present this shot of a wet window.

As director and co-producer, Borzage seems to have invested plenty of interest in CHINA DOLL (he was a flyer himself), as the religious and romantic aspects show. But it doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. The Production Code forbade Mature and Hua Li from kissing, which is disgraceful but doesn’t actually hurt the film — I don’t actually want to see the cute Chinese girl get enveloped in the skin-dripping face of Big Victor anyway, and her saluting him makes for a more novel and touching solution.