Dateline: Gloucester, Massachusetts. The year is 1943 and the Battle of the Atlantic rages. The northern approaches are a graveyard for ships as Nazi ‘wolf packs’ sink hundreds of merchant vessels destined to provide aid to the battered remnants of the European Allies. Pat Bannon (Dana Andrews) is the captain of a small American fishing vessel hired by the comely Margaret McLean (Carla Balenda) to make a trip to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
Lacking money, time and crew, Bannon goes to sea with two new Danish sailors. Right from the very start, tension crackles between the two sailors, and an atmosphere of paranoia descends upon the ship as the two Danes engage in an elegant dance of interrogation, constantly querying answers to mundane questions and raising eyebrows at the idiosyncrasies of each other’s accents and speech patterns. Evidently, the Danish merchant navy has been completely infiltrated by Nazi spies and both men fear each other intensely.
These feelings of paranoia take an eerie physical form when the crew of the brilliantly-named Daniel Webster come across the ruins of a Danish schooner. Wrecked from a storm and seemingly abandoned, the old-fashioned but nonetheless massive sailing ship looms out of the darkness like a traumatic memory. Hoping to find survivors and salvage, Bannon leads his crew on-board amidst distant sounds of gun-fire from German U-boats signalling to each other.
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The atmosphere is unreal. Every shadow seethes with Nazi spies and restless dead. Slowly, the crew crawl into the belly of the Danish ship and come across its disoriented master Captain Skalder (Claude Rains on brilliant form). Skalder spins them a story of an inexperienced crew that fled to the lifeboats in a storm after being spooked by a U-Boat. But with paranoia already sharpening the senses of Bannon and his crew, it is obvious that something is not quite right here. Did U-Boats actually shell the ship? And if so why did they only knock out the rigging rather than sink the vessel as per their normal tactics?
With the beautifully lunky Konrad (Philip Dorn) by his side, Bannon sneaks down into the basement of the ship and discovers a terrible secret. Beneath the barrels of rum that constitute the ship’s official cargo lurk dozens and dozens of torpedoes. Enough to keep the wolf packs in operation for quite a while. Afraid that the Nazi spies will murder his crew, Bannon agrees to tow Skalder back to port but, upon arriving in port, Skalder rejoins his crew and comes to realise that the game is up. Taking Ms McLean as a hostage and threatening to destroy her village, Skalder provokes Bannon and his crew into action.
Sealed Cargo is very much a film of two parts. The first part is a tight, atmospheric and exquisitely made wartime thriller. With a surprising lightness of touch for a director of that period, Alfred L. Werker manages to imbue the squabbles amongst the crew of the Daniel Webster with a real sense of unease and psychological realism. These are people who are profoundly afraid. They are afraid because they have to leave the safety of an idyllic American port in order to make money on the dark and dangerous waters of the North Atlantic. They are afraid because they do not know each other. They are afraid because they do not know what lies ahead.
In a series of short encounters, Werker does a brilliant job of tightening the screws on audience and characters alike and by the time the Danish schooner comes looming out of the darkness one cannot help but find oneself perched on the very edge of one’s seat. The descent into the ship’s hold must class as one of the most technically effective horror set-pieces I have ever seen. So effective and spartan is the production that one is reminded of Robert Wise’s brilliant 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House (1959). However, as is traditional in these kinds of thrillers, there is a point at which the film can no longer sustain its own tension and so the rubber band snaps, catapulting us into the consummate silliness of the ‘action film’.
The second part of Sealed Cargo is, quite frankly, completely mental. As one could have predicted way back in the first scene, Balenda’s McLean reveals herself to be one of those female characters who exist only to provoke conflict amongst men. Had McLean not been there then chances are that Bannon and his crew would have crept away from the Nazis and made a discrete call to the Canadian navy.
However, because McLean gets captured, Bannon’s sailors are forced to take matters into their own hands and this rapidly devolves into lots of people running around in a forest before a hulking great Dane machine-guns a load of flaming Nazis with an orgasmic grin on his face. The action set-pieces are quite niftily arranged with Werker putting a few back-lot pirate ship models and sets to brilliant use, and Rains camping it up brilliantly as he tries to talk his guard into signalling to the approaching U-Boats.
Although far from a perfect film, Sealed Cargo’s opening sequences are more than atmospheric enough to justify forgiving it for the silliness of its final act. All in all, I would say that Sealed Cargo is something of an overlooked gem, which makes it doubly annoying when the only extra on the DVD is a trailer. Grrr…