Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Two Wartime B-Thrillers with James Craig

The phrase "big lug" was custom-made for James Craig. He never had much of a career in big studio movies; his biggest part was probably as the farmer who makes a deal with the devil in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. His strength was in the realm of the B-film. He was handsome, occasionally resembling Clark Gable, though he's not a great actor, nor a great romancer. But if the role called for strong and sturdy and silent, he fits the bill. The following are two Craig movies which also happen to be, to varying degrees, WWII propaganda movies, one near the beginning of the war and one at the end.

SEVEN MILES FROM ALCATRAZ (1942): Despite weak characterizations and some wildly predictable plot twists, this was enjoyable. Craig and a buddy (Frank Jenks) break out of Alcatraz just after Pearl Harbor, partly out of a fear that the island prison makes them sitting ducks for a Japanese air invasion. The two wind up on a tiny lighthouse island and they intend to take the inhabitants (including Bonita Granville and Cliff Edwards) hostage, but soon get wrapped up with German spies carrying war secrets who are waiting for a sub. Throughout the movie, connections are made between the criminals and the Nazis, and because Craig is top-billed, you know he'll turn over a new leaf by the end. Craig doesn't have his mustache here, and he's handsomer without it. His acting even seems a little less heavy-handed than usual. Granville doesn't register much, but she doesn't have a lot to do except gradually fall for Craig. John Banner, who played Sgt. Schultz on "Hogan's Heroes," is one of the Nazis--I never would have recognized him. Frank Jenks had a little more exposure a few years later as Dennis Morgan's sailor buddy in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT.

DANGEROUS PARTNERS (1945): This thriller is interesting for the moral ambiguity that surrounds the male and female leads, right up until the end. Signe Hasso and her husband chase down a man (Edmund Gwenn) who is going around the country collecting on wills made out to him. James Craig, a shysterish lawyer, is also on Gwenn's trail, hoping to blackmail him for a murder he suspects Gwenn of committing. Hasso and Craig join forces, both for greedy purposes. Of course, when they find out that Gwenn is not just a crook but also evil (imagine Kris Kringle as a Nazi!!), they come to a moral fork in the road. The opening scene, played out in the desert at a plane crash site, is quite atmospheric, but in terms of look and style, the rest of the movie goes downhill. In addition to Gwenn, there are some good performances from some interesting supporting players: Felix Bressart (James Stewart's friend in SHOP AROUND THE CORNER), Audrey Totter, and Warner Anderson. Hasso doesn't have much going for her here except for her Nordic looks and intense stare. The propaganda elements are lightly laid on at the end--you know that Craig and Hasso will eventually do the patriotic thing, but it takes right up til the end for them to make that decision.

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