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Hot Cargo & The Titanic Incident


Sex and contraband. That’s the way to get ahead in “the Orient”, according to a January 1956 episode of the Screen Directors Playhouse, Hot Cargo. Yvonne De Carlo is Pearl, a bar waitress who deals with the advances of drunken men when her ship captain husband is away transporting cargo. When her good looks result in a brawl, Pearl becomes close with federal agent Joe Mahoney (Rory Calhoun) who shoots a man in self defense during the fight. Joe is in this foreign land rooting out ships carrying contraband, but he has an idea about making money off doing just that and convinces Pearl to offer the job to her husband.

When Pearl brings the subject up, however, the husband (Alan Reed) weeps and beats her silly. Nevertheless, the lovers push on with their scheme and have illegal goods loaded onto the husband’s vessel without him knowing it. When he finds out and lunges at his wife, Pearl shoots him dead but Joe takes the fall and gets off free and clear by being a cop. Their romance is not to have a happy ending, however.

The story for Hot Cargo was a bit weak. The story rushes along and when it nearly climaxes with the shooting of the husband, the audience is left questioning Pearl’s motives. The woman seems to genuinely care for her spouse, but instead of fleeing from the angry man through the door directly behind her, she shoots him before he is anywhere close enough to hurt her. This Tay Garnett-directed tale lacks all the sensuality and driving power of the man’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, although it reflects some of the nonsense of his A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. The moral of the story seems to be: Teach a woman to shoot at your own risk. 

When The Titanic Incident came to a close my first thought was: That was an awful story. The trouble is not that it was poorly written or terribly acted just that it reverted to a rather evil conclusion. A married couple are aboard the mis-named SS Titanic (the actual vessel went by RMS Titanic) and are residing in separate state rooms because they are masquerading as acquaintances as part of a con. Susan (May Wynn) will attract the attention of a wealthy yet poor gambler Sir Hubert Cornwall (Phillip Reed) in order to introduce him to a poker game with her husband Paul (Leo Genn).

As Susan spends time with Sir Cornwall the man falls ever more in love with her, although his advances at times seem creepy. It is difficult to read the woman’s emotions as she reacts to his feelings but after the man seeks her hand in marriage she goes to her husband to declare she loves the mark. Susan informs us that theirs has been a marriage of convenience and she assumes the man will not stand in her way for true love. Unfortunately, Paul does love his wife and has been thinking about getting out of the scam racket, but even hearing that does not persuade Susan away from her new interest.

When the steamship hits the iceberg and the passengers are ordered to their life boats, Sir Cornwall gets socked out by another passenger but seeing Susan’s expression, her husband hauls the man onto the boat. As he climbs in, however, Paul and Susan spot a device attached to Sir Cornwall’s arm that allows him to cheat at poker. The two men start throwing fists as the lifeboat plummets into the water and they fly overboard, continuing the brawl in the ocean. The husband wins out and the discreet smile on Susan’s face as he climbs back on board is enough to think they are both monsters.

The Titanic Incident actually felt like quite a long story despite its actual run time. Director Ted Tetzlaff was perhaps misguided in making a picture about dishonest people aboard a vessel where the lives of more than a thousand people are already doomed. Although Susan might be mildly likeable, the men are not and the salvation of one over the lives of hundreds more is foul and insensitive. The action almost suggests that everyone was able to climb aboard a lifeboat. A more appropriate ending would be for one of the suitors to sacrifice himself by staying on the Titanic to allow the woman to have a happy ending.

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