Thursday, January 22, 2009

Desperate Cargo

Desperate Cargo DVD coverCrime thriller Desperate Cargo (1941) is focused entirely on action; the dialogue does nothing more than advance the plot and the settings are neither specific nor believable. Evidenced by the two settings in which the film takes place, the fictional cove Puerto Nueve of an unnamed Caribbean island, and a seaplane with warped interior dimensions, both place and space have minimal importance in Desperate Cargo; what matters is catching the crooks and getting the girl.

The opening sequence occurs in a balmy Puerto Nueve hotel and lays the groundwork for the crime around which the film revolves. Two men named Ryan and Dessler show up to see a man named Carter; maintaining his disguise even before the hotel staff, it is assumed he is a notorious crime boss. Carter has planned a heist and has hired the others to pull it off; their objective is to steal close to half a million dollars stored in a safe on a Trans-Caribbean Airways plane, which is due to arrive soon in Puerto Nueve. This may be peanuts for modern Hollywood thieves, but the figure elicits an awed whistle from Ryan.

Later we are introduced to leading man Tony Bronson, an American playboy who enlists bellboy Jose to drive away two flirtatious Latin women when platinum blond Ann Howard catches his attention. When Howard and her friend Peggy Morton, a self-proclaimed gold-digger, go out to dine with Morton’s long-time love interest and New York newspaper correspondent Jim Halsey, he invites Bronson along. The girls work their charms on Bronson, who happens to the Trans-Caribbean Airlines purser, lying that they must get back to their Broadway jobs in order to secure their passage back home. As they wait for the delayed plane there is some romantic chemistry between Howard and Bronson, but he is enraged when he catches on to her deception, accustomed to being the player rather than the one played.

Despite his wounded ego Bronson does not cancel the tickets, and all board the Trans-Carribbean Airways seaplane. Its lengthy corridors and spacious cabins demand a suspension of disbelief, but the action quickly distracts from volumetric details. The thieves from the opening scene brandish their guns before the passengers, who oddly seem more inconvenienced than terrified, and proceed to empty the safe. They land on water and tie up the crew, revealing their plan to escape via another plane and set this one alight. The passengers, led by the stoic Bronson, acquire a gun which leads to skirmishes and shootouts. Bronson saves the day by exiting the plane, swimming to where the crew is held, and leading the men in a surprise attack on the villains. The near death experience prompts Bronson and Howard to become enamored once again, and catalyzes a romantic relationship between Morton and Halsey. They arrive in Miami, we are informed by a diligent crew member, only four hours late. Not bad!

Some characters are in Puerto Nueve for business: the would-be thieves, Bronson, and Halsey. Others are there for pleasure: the vacationing Howard and Morton. However, the reason why this generic island has such a transient and diverse American presence is taken for granted, until one line of dialogue reveals the big picture in a flash. We hear Halsey, in mid-phone conversation to New York: “. . .and it’s encouraging to note the effect of the American Good Neighbor Policy in such a small town of Puerto Nueve. That’s all for today. I’ll cover the cotton angle tomorrow.” In contrast to the rest of the dialogue in Desperate Cargo, this line offers concrete geopolitical details; the island has recently and conspicuously been absorbed into the U.S. sphere of influence and its primary goods are of economic interest.

However, one wonders what this “effect” is, and how it might be experienced differently by Americans versus Caribbeans. The affluent hotel and smartly dressed Latin women suggest that American money has been infused into Puerto Nueve, but the only other evidence of American presence is a surge in crime and violence, from a knife inexplicably launched at Halsey, to a bar brawl involving Bronson, to the thieves hiding out while planning their heist. Interestingly, the film explores some murky ethical territory in heated exchanges between Morton and Howard, the former arguing that gold-digging is a perfectly equitable exchange of a woman’s entertaining presence for a man’s wealth and influence, and the latter morally opposed but resigning to necessity. In a film situated on an anonymous island into which U.S. free trade policy is embedding its claws, a discussion on the ethics of gold-digging is not entirely out of place.

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