Dangerous Crossing (1953)

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

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Film Noir, John Dickson Carr, Noir on Tuesday, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Dangerous Crossing (1953)

  1. Patrick says:

    I got this DVD from Fox as part of a 4 disc set of “Studio Classics”. One of the other movies included is BLACK WIDOW, adapted from Patrick Quentin’s story.

    • Hi Patrick – have you seen either of them yet? The adaptation of Fatal Woman, which may have been the final collaboration between Wheeler and Webb, sticks fairly closely to the original plot (even if the Duluths are no longer Duluths) and is a fairly enjoyable mystery only slightly compromised by the need at the time to make everything work in the new ultrawide CinemaScope process, which often means that everybody has bedrooms the size of tennis courts and tennis courts the size of football fields! Dangerous Crossing thankfully was shot in January 1953 before the widescreen dictat came down from Zanuck – indeed it was one of the last genuine black and white B-movies made by Fox and in terms of look is, I think, all is all the better for it. I’m doing a general post about Carr later this week which i hope you’ll enjoy.

  2. Colin says:

    Nice choice Sergio. Thanks for linking to my piece on So Long at the Fair and for providing the link to the Suspense archive – I have a fair bit of downloading ahead of me!

    I actually did a piece on this movie myself way back when I first started blogging, and I agree with your assessment of both the strengths and weaknesses. It’s certainly a B movie, but a really stylish and interesting one. I like Rennie (I’d really love to see his Third Man series released in full) and Crain was always a wonderful actress to watch. Newman did better stuff though, his direction is just ok and nothing more.

    As a fan of Carr, I’m happy this movie got released on DVD. I like to fantasise that someday, someone might get round to adapting his stories as period pieces for a TV series – unlikely but stranger things do happen.

    • Thanks very much Colin. I know what you mean about Carr – I used to wonder about getting someone like Timothy West to play Merrivale for instance. In Italy they got Adolfo Celi, Largo from Thunderball, to play him (lets not mention his performance in The Borgias …). Donald Sinden did an OK job as Fell on radio about 20 years ago but if maybe they could get Jonathan Creek author David Renwick to adapt Carr for TV that would be wonderful wouldn’t it …

      I actually didn’t spot your review of Dangerous Crossing silly me but here it is. Excellent stuff mate.

      • Colin says:

        Cheers. Yeah, Renwick clearly has a great affection for Carr as Jonathan Creek is heavily influenced by his writing. I know these kinds of stories are difficult to pull off but the humour, the macabre atmosphere and the clever mysteries ought to have potential. Not sure who you could cast as Merrivale, Fell or even Bencolin these days though.

        • Colin says:

          BTW, I really don’t like whatever new software WordPress is running for notifications. It’s ridiculously slow to load for me.

          • Something has definitely changed – it’s slower and doesn’t distinguish between messages and spam – I used to get a nice little number to tell me about comments and instead I just a change in colour and half the time it’s spam – talk about getting excited over nothing …

        • Hi Colin, it’s annoying when even the fantasy casting stalls! I get all excited in my head and then trying to visualise it falls apart – but in fact Michael Gambon could play these roles for instance (we should be so lucky …) though his Maigret series was pretty anodyne sadly.

  3. curtis evans says:

    I think this is a rather good little B-film, though it’s baffling why Carr’s superbly colorful books have received so little attention from filmmakers.

    • Cheers Curt – it’s odd, isn’t it? The comedic potential alone should have appealed as would the shuddery atmosphere and ‘high concept’ plots. Maybe they were perceived as being too complex, or convoluted anyway …

      • curtis evans says:

        But then why the Jonathan creeks? One might have thought the success of that series might have spurred some movement.

        • Mysteries remain ever-present on TV but Jonathan Creek was probably mostly enjoyed as a comedy show (the stars are both comedians first and foremost after all) with some clever stories appended to it and not as a competitor to Poirot for instance. This isn’t right of course, but I think that is where the audience perception would lie. very few of the viewers would have caught the reference to Carr or Post or Futrelle one would imagine. I suspect the intricacy of Carr would be considered too taxing, which i think just shows contempt for your audiences, though the camping up of the recent Christie adaptations also suggests the same let’s face it …

  4. Colin says:

    I find it especially hard to see how Carr’s writing has been pretty much ignored on film/TV while Christie’s stuff continues to get adapted to this day. It can’t be down to the era, as Marple and Poirot are every bit as much a product of their time as Carr’s detectives.

    Have you seen That Woman Opposite? It’s adapted from The Emperor’s Snuffbox – I have the DVD sitting on my shelves but I haven’t watched it yet.

    • Never seen That Woman Opposite (aka ‘City After Midnight’) – I saw that it was now out on DVD and was thinking of taking a punt as well (though it doesn’t have much of a reputation does it?)

      I agree that it is quite gobsmacking that Carr hasn’t had a bit more of a chance to succeed on TV apart from Colonel March. Barring a couple of anthology adaptations in the 60s, it’s just never been done in Britain. You could argue that Christie, as the biggest selling GAD author ever by a quite considerable margin, is a bit of a special case. But when you realise that the stories by Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and Chesterton have all had several bites of the cherry, it is more than just curious, suggesting that Carr’s work may be simply harder to adapt successfully. Having said that, it is very hard not to keep coming back to the success of Jonathan Creek and use that as a pointer to what could be done.

      Here is the adaptation of ‘The Silver Curtain’ from Colonel March of Scotland Yard: cue zany music …

      Part 2:

      • Colin says:

        God, that’s some wildly inappropriate music, isn’t it? The show seems a tad creaky too. A pity since some of the Colonel March short stories are actually quite good.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    I’d forgotten Michael Rennie so I thank you for reminding me of him. Don’t think I have seen this one. Love that premise too. Hard to pull off though in a movie. Much easier in a book.

  6. I saw DANGEROUS CROSSING years ago. I’m a big fan of John Dickson Carr’s work. As Patti says, many of his plot twists work better in print than on the screen.

    • Cheers George – it’s a shame that this is one of the very few movies where this has been tested out so far. I do think a lot of his radio plays, while stylistically a bit old fashioned with their knife chords and overly descriptive dialogue as was so common then, are still wonderfully ingenious and entertaining.

  7. Richard says:

    My god, I’d forgotten how gorgeous Jeanne Crain was! I haven’t seen this, but want to now (not just for her) as I have heard part of that radio broadcast and was intrigued. Now much more so.

    • Hi Richard, hope you enjoy the movie. Crain had outgrown her sometimes usual winsome persona by the time she made this movie and although she didn’t often get to play glamorous much up until this point, she looks absolutely gorgeous while going out of her mind in this one, no doubt about it.

  8. Yvette says:

    Well, I am definitely going to look for the Suspense radio dramas, Sergio. What a treasure trove of Carr. I never even knew it existed!

    I love Michael Rennie, so for him alone I might watch this movie which, amazingly enough, it appears I’ve never seen. 🙂

    I always did love SO LONG AT THE FAIR with a very young Dirk Bogarde and a very young Jean Simmons. If only I could find a good DVD copy.

    • Thanks Yvette – really hope you enjoy those – sooner or later I want to do a separate post of Carr’s radio plays, but most of them are either excellent or well above average. The best of the plays include:

      The Devil in the Summer House
      Will You Make a Bet with Death
      The Bride Vanishes
      Till Death Do Us Part
      The Devil’s Saint
      The Dead Sleep Lightly
      Mr Markham, Antique Dealer

      Well, fair’s fair, you can have Dirk and I’ll take Jean Simmons, utterly scrumptious in this film. You can get So Long at the Fair in a decent DVD here in the UK so if you machine is multi-region it might be worth getting – here is a link to Amazon.co.uk.

  9. Hi Sergio! I’m neither familiar with this film nor with the actors; for that matter, I have never read John Dickson Carr which is a shame and my loss. I have heard so much about Carr over the past couple of years, mostly on blogs. I enjoyed your review of DANGEROUS CROSSING, though there’s nothing new in that, and I hope to see the film soon on TCM or on DVD if I can lay my hands on one.

    • Hi Prashant, thanks for the kind comments. The movie is fairly easy to find (in fact some very naughty person has posted the whole thing on YouTube – just search under the title and the words Rennie or Crain …). Rennie probably best remembered today for his role as the well-spoken alien in the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still and for playing St Peter in such biblical spectaculars as The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators.

      As for Carr, I’m doing a post on him later this week so I hope you’ll find that interesting – but if you come across any book by him that was originally published before 1950, chances are its one of the best Golden Age mysteries you’ll ever read (oh yes, I’m a real fan).

  10. idawson says:

    Jeanne Crain and Suspense/Noir are not two terms I would think of ever putting together. I may just look out for this one just because …

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