This is one of the surprisingly few films derived from the work of the great mystery writer John Dickson Carr. It was adapted from ‘Cabin B-13’, his celebrated radio drama originally broadcast in 1943 but subsequently repeated and adapted several times over the years. It deals with a classic scenario – a pair of newlyweds board a ship but are separated. When the wife looks for her husband, everyone on board says that she actually arrived alone. Is she going mad or is there a conspiracy?
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“What are you trying to do to me?!”
On 16 March 1943 CBS broadcast ‘Cabin B-13’ in its Suspense radio series and it proved to be an instant hit. It was performed again later that year and the script was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine the following year. It was then performed by the BBC in their Appointment with Fear series and even adapted for the television version of Suspense and later the Climax anthology, with Kim Hunter in the main role. In the original play Carr reminds us of the apparently true antecedent of the story (or an urban legend anyway), when during the Paris Exposition around the turn of the century a hotel room, and the people in it, seem to vanish. In that case, so the story goes, the hotel had conspired to hide the fact that the customers in the room had contracted bubonic plague (!). This was later turned into the 1950 movie, So Long at the Fair (for a detailed review, head over to Riding the High Country).
This is a variation on the theme familiar from movies like Hitchcock’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes (from ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White) or Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) in which our protagonist is looking for a missing individual but everyone else insists that no such person exists. It crops up time and again, most recently in the Jodie Foster movie, Flightplan (2005) and we are faced with the same central dilemma: has the person really vanished and is there a conspiracy to cover it up, or is our protagonist wrong and/or delusional? Dangerous Crossing is a fairly ingenious version of this story and as the lady in peril stars Jeanne Crain, who was coming to the end of her career as a contract star at Twentieth Century Fox. She stars opposite emerging leading man Michael Rennie as the ship’s doctor but the rest of the cast is fairly nondescript in terms of name value, the first real indication that despite its plush look this is in fact a fairly low-budget movie. In fact it was shot for under half a million dollars and in only 19 days, though for all that this is at least a really great looking B-movie, thanks to superior photography by Joseph La Shelle and the use of large ship sets originally built for two much more expensive Fox features, Titanic and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Crain stars as Ruth Stanton, a young woman recovering from a mental breakdown following the recent death of her father. She has just married John Bowman and the two are heading off on their honeymoon. They embark on a liner in New York and check in to their room (B-16) but after he leaves to put their money in the ship’s safe he fails to meet her in the bar as promised – and soon she begins to worry. She asks staff and passengers if they know what has happened to her husband but all deny having seen him. When she goes back to what she thought was the room they put their luggage in, she finds it empty – instead her belongings, booked under her maiden name, are in a different room. As her husband has the tickets and her passport she can’t even prove her booking. The staff is a little wary (especially the ship’s Captain) but basically quite sympathetic, assuming that there has been a simple mix-up and that all will be explained soon. But why is it that no one seems to remember having seen this man at all? As this is a shipload of people it is hard to imagine that this is a conspiracy – is it possible that Ruth is unwell?
Well, we might think that too and maybe the filmmaker missed a trick here by removing any hint of ambiguity. But there is none as we saw her and John get on to the ship at the beginning of the movie. None the less, when a search has turned up nothing and she is starting to truly despair, John phones to warning her that they are both in danger. This does little to temper her mounting sense of hysteria. However she does find at least a couple of sympathetic ears (if not exactly allies) in Paul (Rennie), the ship’s doctor, and a brassy, much married fellow passenger played by Kay Prentiss (she only wishes she could have lost some of her husbands). But what about the mysterious man with the walking stick (the wonderfully named, Karl Ludwig Lindt)? And what about the suspicious-looking ship’s maid? What have they done with her husband? The climax to film all takes place one the night of Halloween, something Carr would certainly have approved of. However, apart from a few props in the ballroom, nothing is really made of this, which is a real shame as it robs the film of much potential atmosphere beyond the ever-present fog.
It does seem as though this film is in some ways going out of its way to eschew the nightmarish quality that indeed one would have associated with the Carrian treatment of a classic theme. There is a fairly atmospheric sequence in the luggage hold as Ruth looks for John, but in the end it’s just a red herring featuring the limping man. Why was the room changed from B-13 to B-16? There seems no obvious reason as it further makes the going on even less spooky. None the less, Crain and Rennie make for attractive leads, the settings are highly impressive and ultimately John is found and the mysterious occurrences are all cleared up fairly satisfactorily. It’s a shame the movie isn’t more in line with the author’s style and indeed, when compared with the later TV-Movie remake, Treacherous Crossing (1992) starring Lindsay Wagner and Angie Dickinson, that version is much more on the money in terms of approach to the same material. None the less, this is a film available in an excellent version on home video and at under 80 minutes it certainly doesn’t over stay its welcome.
The original ‘Cabin B-13’ radio drama, or anyway the version re-broadcast on Suspense when it was repeated later in 1943 can be listened to, either as a stream or download, from that huge and wondrous repository that is The Internet Archive. You can access the dedicated page for the Suspense radio series here, where you will find another two dozen or so of Carr’s fantastic radio plays: http://archive.org/details/SUSPENSE
DVD Availability: This is available in an excellent DVD edition from Fox and was in fact the last to be released as part of their (now sadly defunct) numbered Film Noir range (spine number 24).
Dangerous Crossing (1953)
Director: Joseph M. Newman
Producer: Robert Bassler
Screenplay: Leo Townsend (based on ‘Cabin B-13’ by John Dickson Carr)
Cinematography: Joseph La Shelle
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler
Music: Lionel Newman
Cast: Jeanne Crain, Michael Rennie, Mary Anderson, Max Showalter (as Casey Adams), Carl Betz, Marjorie Hoshelle, Karl Ludwig Lindt