Scen.: Tom Buckingham. F.: Edward Snyder. M.: Milton Carruth. Mus.: W. Franke Harling. Int.: Pat O’Brien (Matt Brennan), Ralph Bellamy (il clandestino), Betty Compson (Ruby Smith), Alan Hale (Lundstrom), Willard Robertson (Joe Shane), Tom Brown (Johnny), Russell Hopton (Georgie), Stanley Fields (Gattallo), Prod.: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. 35mm. D.: 66’. Bn
The early years of the Great Depression saw a number of films – such as Gabriel over the White House and Outward Bound – that imagined divine intervention as an answer to social ills, but perhaps none so explicit as Tay Garnett’s Destination Unknown.
At one sordid and stylish, in the patented Garnett manner (Her Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice), this wild allegory concocted by Garnett and his frequent writing partner Tom Buckingham imagines the nation as a ship adrift in a dead calm, its hold full of illegal liquor intended for thirsty Americans in these last years of Prohibition. The chief of the smugglers – a gruff, unshaven Pat O’Brien – has control of the only supply of fresh water left on the ship, which gives him dictatorial power over the crew (led by Alan Hale, whose Swedish accent marks him as the sort of Northern European immigrant who can be trusted). Stowing away in the dead captain’s quarters is O’Brien’s vengeful ex-mistress (Betty Compson). The stand-off is complete until a mysterious stranger (Ralph Bellamy, burnished with a back-lighted nimbus) emerges from deep in the hold, to announce that the barrels of contraband wine have now become water.
Garnett staged Destination Unknown almost entirely on a genuine three-masted schooner, suspended by cables against a black velvet background on Universal’s largest soundstage, his camera mounted on the giant crane that Universal had built for the 1929 Broadway. In a late interview, Bellamy claimed that the cast and crew systematically stayed drunk throughout the shoot – and in the process protected themselves against a flu epidemic that had brought all other production on the Universal lot to a halt.