How many people are familiar with the name John Dickson Carr? I suspect the answer is very few, yet from the 1930s through the 1960s he was one of the best known writers of mystery fiction. In the decades since he has faded into relative obscurity while his contemporary Agatha Christie has remained a recognizable commodity with the general public. Both of these writers specialised in detective stories that were notable not for their strong characterization but for their clever, and sometimes ingenious, plotting. However, one has remained highly marketable and the other has not – why? The changing taste of the reading public is no good as an explanation since the work of both of them is very much a product of its time. No, the answer may lie in the fact that, at least from the 1970s on, Christie’s writing has been regularly adapted for both television and the big screen. So, as a big fan of Carr, it’s refreshing to see a film available that was sourced from his work.
A newlywed bride (Jeanne Crain) stands on the dock waiting for her husband (Carl Betz). When he arrives they both board the transatlantic liner that will carry them off on their honeymoon. Their happiness, though, is destined to be a short-lived affair. While the husband goes off to see the purser, the wife agrees to meet him in the bar and waits there. It’s a long wait, and when she tries to find him it appears that no one else on the ship has ever laid eyes on the groom. As an increasingly paranoid Crain roams the fog bound ship in an effort to trace her missing spouse, and prove that she’s not some nut job, the characters whom she encounters range from the suspicious to the downright untrustworthy. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Dangerous Crossing (1953), and the result is a neat and professional little mystery that reaches a satisfying conclusion in its short running time.
Since this is essentially a B picture, there are no major stars on view and the focus is firmly on Crain, and Michael Rennie (TV’s Harry Lime) as the seemingly sympathetic doctor. Crain’s best scenes come towards the beginning of the movie as it slowly dawns on her that her husband is not to be found on the ship and everyone, both crew and fellow passengers alike, treat her with what could be best described as indulgent scepticism. There are also enough doubts sown in the minds of the viewer as to whether the heroine is delusional or the victim of an elaborate plot to keep things interesting. Michael Rennie is solid, as always, playing the one character who may believe Crain’s story. The support cast doesn’t feature too many faces that would be immediately recognizable, but Willis Bouchey (who graced many a John Ford picture) has a nice turn as the ship’s captain.
While Dangerous Crossing has been released as part of the latest wave of noirs from Fox it does not, in my opinion anyway, really belong in that category. It is most assuredly a mystery, albeit one with a few noir touches such as the paranoid atmosphere and the shadowy photography of Joseph LaShelle. There are some nice sequences on the foggy nighttime decks, a tense cat-and-mouse scene in the baggage hold and a chase through a crowded ballroom. This is all handled competently, if unspectacularly, by director Joseph M. Newman. In the hands of someone more imaginative, Hitchcock for example, these set pieces could have been much more memorable. As it is, they seem a little flat – not bad, just not as good as they could have been.
For a fan of his work, it’s great to see some of John Dickson Carr’s work on the screen. Carr was a hugely prolific writer (he also worked under the pseudonym Carter Dickson since his output was so prodigious that he needed two publishers to handle it) yet few of his works have appeared on film and I’m not sure why this is. I had been of the opinion that the tricky nature of his plotting might not translate well to film but I’m not so sure of that now. Anyone familiar with the TV series Jonathan Creek (certainly inspired by the locked room and impossible crime puzzles of Carr) will know that this kind of material can work successfully if approached in the right way. Whatever, fans of the master of detection – a kind of mix of Christie, Chesterton and M.R. James – will have to settle for this for now.
The DVD of Dangerous Crossing, part of the recently revived Fox Noir line, is fantastic looking and I’d be hard pressed to find any fault with it. Fox have been doing great work in offering rare and surprising titles in very nice and affordable editions. In addition to the film, there’s a commentary track, an isolated score from Lionel Newman, trailer etc. We also get a short featurette on the film with info on Jeanne Crain and on Fox’s recycling of their sets; I suggest watching the movie first, though, as the featurette does contain a spoiler. So, you get an entertaining, if minor film in a fine presentation from Fox – just remember, it’s not really noir.