Monday, October 6, 2014

John Farrow | Five Came Back


by Douglas Messerli

Jerry Cady, Dalton Trumbo and Nathanael West (screenplay, based on a story by Richard Carroll), John Farrow (director) Five Came Back / 1939

We know from the very title of this seemingly B-grade flick that several of the improbable travelers aboard The Silver Queen to—inexplicably—Panama will not make it of the film alive. Predictably, after setting up most the character typologies, the plane in which they are flying begins to cough in a heavy down-pour, loses an engine and is about to crash. Less expectedly, one of the nine nervous passengers, Crimp (John Carradine)—apparently a free-lance bounty-hunter—threatens the pilots with a gun, ridiculously demanding that they turn around mid-storm and go back! A brief battle ensues, with Crimp losing, and the plane, soon after, landing in a small jungle clearing. All right, that man has to go! One down. Well, actually, two, we recall, since the helpful steward, Larry (Dick Hogan), has previously been expelled from the clipper’s door when a loose canister has crashed into it during the bumpy flight.

     We’ve already seen a black cat cross Crimp and his anarchist prisoner, Vasquez’s (Joseph Calleia) path during a Mexican stop. So that’s three down. Who’s next?

      Sure, Peggy Nolan (Lucille Ball) is a woman of loose morals, on the lam to escape from the men that have done her wrong—despite one of their kind’s floral tribute to her clear back in the airport. But she’s got a heart of gold, and by the time the survivors have set up a variation of a small, utopian camp, where nearly everyone does their part to help the community survive and keep up their spirits, she has, as she puts it, developed maternal feelings for the young boy, Tommy Mulvaney (Casey Johnson), son of the recently killed gangster who one of his gunman, Pete (Allen Jenkins) is escorting to Panama.

      Although professor Henry Spengler (C. Aubrey Smith) is somewhat of a know-all blowheart and his bossy wife, Martha (Elisabeth Risdon) is a bit of an unhappy scold, they soon enough prove their mettle, Spengler’s knowledge helping them all to perceive they’ve landed far away from their original route, in the midst of an Amazonia rainforest; and Martha capability taking on the role of resident cook, bottle scrubber, and washerwoman—womanly tasks that seem to bring back her good spirits.  

    The pretty Alice Melbourne (Wendy Barrie) also does her part, working valiantly to help in group projects despite the expected daily drunkenness of the wealthy executive, Judson Ellis (Patric Knowles), with whom she was on her way to Panama to elope. Surely it’s better to find out that he was the wrong kind of guy before she tied the knot. So have we also discovered another no-good guy for whom it might be better if he not “come back.”

      The grumpy and complaining Crimp soon enough disappears, later to be found shot with a poison arrow by the wandering young Tommy. So he’s out of hair already.

      Even if Tommy’s caretaker is a little tough around the edges, the boy’s utter innocence so crumbles his defenses, and he’s a good shot, able to bring down an animal for the group’s dinner—a handy man to have around. It makes utterly no sense, accordingly, when the clever writers of this “ten little Indians”-kind of tale have him, upon discovering Crimp’s body, send Tommy back to the others while he hangs around the spot just to be shot, just like Crimp, by a native poison arrow. I’d hardly call that playing fair.

      And then there’s the anarchist, Vasquez, so impressed with the friendly efficiency of this little “New Jerusalem,” that he dares to question his old political values. He might, he admits, if were able to relive his past, have acted differently after witnessing the human values that these good folk have suddenly rediscovered in themselves. For him, going back simply means a return to everything he stands against—and, of course, his certain death. We’d almost like to keep him on our boarding roster, but he too was in the path of that black cat, besides being doomed from the very first scene. 

     Despite Pilot Bill Brook’s (Chester Morris) cocky attitude and his attempts to “hit” upon good lookers like Peggy, he has to “go back” if any others are to survive (although, had I known that off-screen he clumsily tried to woo Ball into his bed, I might have voted him down). And even though co-pilot Joe (Kent Taylor) holds a gun for a while—weapons treasured by the dead Crimp and Pete—he’s been working too hard with Bill on repairing the flimsy clipper to allow the writers and director to kill him off. Furthermore, he never actually uses the gun.

     The local natives had already begun their drumming, and it will be only a matter of hours—no, the drums have already stopped—a matter of minutes before only five survivors can board the plane for a quick trip over the mountains, presumably to be discovered again by civilized folk. Knowing he has nothing to lose, Vasquez grabs the gun and the right, he proclaims, to make the final decisions of who goes and who stays.

      Fortunately, he doesn’t even have to make that choice. The self-sacrificing and now perfectly content elderly Spenglers secretly make a pact with him to stay behind. The only one who doesn’t seem to know his place is the still stumbling, self-privileged drunk, Judson Ellis, who tries to bribe the honest disbeliever, who, as Ellis attempts to board the plane, shoots him dead.

     The plane revs up its motors and rises into the air just above the tree-line. We can see the natives stirring in the bush. Professor Spengler lets Vasquez know that any man taken by the natives will surely be tortured. It’s okay, Vasquez conspires, there are three bullets left, while the camera quickly reveals only two remaining. As the Spenglers move a ways off, we hear two shots. Vasquez, the bravest of them all, awaits his fate—not that much different, perhaps, from the lonely hanging he had previously been sentenced to endure. At least, this time around, he’ll die with people around him—even if it hurts. (Earlier Vasquez has stated: Hanging is such an unpleasant death. Besides, a hanged man always dies alone. I much prefer dying in the company of decent citizens like you... always provided I'm the last to die.”)

     So five came back, we have to presume. But I still feel those noted writers somehow got it wrong. Knowing Nathaniel West’s often misanthropic tendencies, I have to believe it was he who determined that the gentle Spenglers had to go, as opposed to the obviously empty-minded or, at least, wrong-headed, but somewhat good-looking Alice (played by the actress whose own career was destroyed through her affair with Bugsy Malone) and the forlorn, long-legged loser Peggy—in whose maternal instincts I am not for one moment convinced. And what’s going to happen now to the mother and fatherless young Tommy? Mrs. Spengler, who lost her boy at Tommy’s same age, would have made a much better surrogate mother. 

      Those are not issues, presumably, we are encouraged to consider. Those whose paths were crossed by black cats, those who live by the gun, and those who have already endured a long life—as we now know from the dozens of disaster movies, like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno, which this little fable begat—simply can’t walk away at the end. Only the normally bland failed lovers and would-be dreamers are permitted to see the new sun rise.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2014

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2014).

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