As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
Dangerous Crossing was directed by Joseph M. Newman in 1953, not long before the one title he's semi-remembered for, This Island Earth. It seems to have been greenlit as a B-picture to take advantage of the sets built for Fox's Titanic, as it's an ocean voyage mystery.
Newlywed Jeanne Crain boards ship with her husband, who promptly vanishes, and nobody will admit to ever having seen him. Of course the plot kernel was used before, by writers Launder and Gilliat for director Hitchcock in The Lady Vanishes. But it existed previously, as a tall tale set during the Paris Exposition, and this version had been turned into a very neat British movie co-directed by future Hammer honcho Terence Fisher, So Long at the Fair, in 1950. (Later, Bunny Lake is Missing and Flightplan would exploit variations on the same premise.)
So it's a third-hand plot on second-hand sets, but the source is a story by John Dickson Carr, master of this kind of thing: impossible crimes, locked room mysteries, plots so inexplicable they appear supernatural, but which are always tidied away by a solution that obeys the laws of physics if not those of probability or psychology. "We are not concerned with whether the thing would be done," declares one of his portly sleuths, "merely with whether it could be done." Carr's skill was such that he could have his detective list the only possible solutions to a locked-room case (it's not really locked; it's locked but not airtight; the crime happened, by some sleight-of-hand, before it was locked or after it was unlocked; it was locked but the criminal's still in there) even while preventing the reader from guessing which variation has been used in the crime at hand.
I've read a lot of negative reviews of Jeanne Crain, but always found her a perfectly decent second lead, as in Preminger's The Fan or Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives. She's pretty terrible at the start of this picture, though, maybe the source of all that prejudice. She tends to force every response to the surface, anxious that we notice how much she's acting. It's a relief when her hubby goes missing as it gives her some motivation at least for being twitchy. So her inexperience turns into something useful and she becomes completely credible, even moving. Her disappearing beau is played by a dull fellow out of Central Casting, which also has a surprise positive effect: every time a male extra walks past, we think it might be him. Which is exactly the sensation one gets when anxiously awaiting somebody.
Newman may not have much control over his actors (fortunately, in a way, the real main lead, Michael "Klaatu" Rennie, is incapable of overacting, his only quality being height) but he films elegantly, throwing in a lot of atmospheric floating about and a decently staged jump-scare or two.
Having stowed away on a bigger movies's sets, the film looks terrific, and when the disconcertingly bright daytime (in which the persistence of nightmare always seems doubly strange, vertiginous) gives way to misty night, with bellowing foghorn blasting away like the last trumpet (sounding a lot like the terror-honking beloved of modern soundtrack composers), we could almost be at Warner Bros. on one of those doom-laden vessels of destiny that has Sydney Greenstreet aboard. Why is the crew, or some of them, apparently gaslighting our heroine?
As the story goes on, we come to suspect that Crain may be insane, with ourselves and the camera fully partaking of her delusions (snatches of voiceover merely make her seem all the more unreliable); and that Michael Rennie has to be that tall because he has such high cheekbones. If he were shorter, they'd be floating about by themselves, slicing aerodynamically through the sea air inches above his scalp.
There would have been few movie precursors for a depiction of mental illness from the inside: Caligari, perhaps, and the fascination Joan Crawford vehicle Possessed (1947). What Carr's story provides instead is a revelation that has been meticulously, but invisibly prepared for, and is breathtaking when it occurs: a naturalistic explanation which ties together two seemingly unconnected bits of information to send our heads spinning. Even the charmlessness of Crain's beau turns to the film's advantage. Instead of the modernism of a main character adrift from reality, it's just old-fashioned storytelling craft, from a shallow but brilliant master of manipulation.