‘The Decks Ran Red’ (1958)

[23 August 2013]

By Michael Barrett

Freshly available on demand from Warner Archive is this production from the married team of Virginia and Andrew L. Stone, the wife editing while the husband writes and directs. They produced several suspense thrillers marked by a documentary approach to location shooting and a crisp, tense style. This one stars James Mason, who also starred in the Stones’ Cry Terror the same year. In both films, he’s dealing with a psychopath of grandiose ambitions.

This time around, Mason is the last-minute replacement captain for a cargo ship off the coast of New Zealand. A casually demonic and brutal Broderick Crawford (effectively making the viewer queasy), aided by snaky young Stuart Whitman, plans to incite a mutiny and kill everyone on board for the purpose of claiming the cargo as salvage. Just to spice things up, the under-used African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge (Mason’s co-star in Island in the Sun) is aboard as a sultry Maori who’s married to the jealous cook. She gets to show off her cleavage, put herself in danger, and help Mason with her wiles. While she’s the most intrusive and unbelievable element, it’s probably fair to surmise that she constituted the biggest draw at the box office.

The film is allegedly based on a true story, with the “truth” reinforced stylistically by filming on an actual ship in deep-focus black and white and by eschewing background music for natural sounds; these choices must have given some tone of modernity that elevated a purely functional story, and the film does achieve a sense of frustration, claustrophobia, and danger. The gaudiest touch is that the word “RED” in the title is indeed a bright red, the only use of color in a black and white movie that never actually shows any blood. It’s no masterpiece, but it works the viewer over in its tight running time.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/173740-the-decks-ran-red/