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By and large, observers of the career of the beautiful, talented and tragic African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge have accorded footnote status to The Decks Ran Red (1958), the offbeat, low-budget thriller that she made just prior to the filming of Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess (1959). It's unfortunate, because this odd little throwaway gave her the opportunity to project her considerable sensuality to an unprecedented degree while presenting her as an object of glamour in a manner uncommon for black actresses of the day. Filmed on Catalina Island, off the coast of California, The Decks Ran Red is also unique for opting to use the natural sounds of the ocean and daily shipboard life instead of a commissioned music score.
The screenplay, a concoction by the filmmaking team of director Andrew L. Stone (Cry Terror!, 1958) and his wife/editor Virginia Lively, opens on the sudden demise of the captain of the S.S. Berwind, a dingy, ancient freighter harbored in New Zealand. The parent line offers the command to Edwin Rummill (James Mason), the buttoned-down, by-the-book first mate of a luxury liner; Rummill, desirous of the career advancement guaranteed by a captaincy, even of this dubious scow, accepts. Determined to have the Berwind put to sea ASAP, Rummill makes the chancy call to replace its AWOL cook with a local Maori (Joel Fluellen) who's adamant about bringing along his striking wife Mahia (Dandridge), despite the leering attentions of the crew.
While the Berwind crew is rife with sullen louts, the most unsavory by far are Henry Scott (Broderick Crawford) and Leroy Martin (Stuart Whitman), who are concocting a scheme as audacious as it is heinous. Their intent is to wait until the vessel is deep enough into the shipping lane, at which point they intend to scuttle the engines and systematically murder everyone else on board. From there, they can subsist for months on the ship's provisions until their anticipated rescue, and thereafter put in a million-dollar salvage claim on the Berwind and its cargo. Once they start putting their plan in motion, Rummill has a harrowing battle--with the aid of the gutsy Mahia--to preserve his vessel and all aboard.
Stone, who reportedly based his screenplay on a real-life 1905 incident at sea, had strong impressions of Mason from having worked with him back to back on Cry Terror! and The Decks Ran Red. "I had the impression of a very unhappy man, but what I liked about him was that he wasn't one of those phony Englishmen like Niven, who created a character for himself as that cheery soldier," Stone recounted for Sheridan Morley's James Mason: Odd Man Out (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). "[Y]ou always knew where you stood with him and he would never let you down. The pictures we made together could maybe have been a bit better, but we were very pressed for time and James was always there on cue, always professional...But there was something churning inside of him, and although he never let it show in his work, you could always sense it. He was a tenacious son of a bitch, and a great survivor, but I think he was maybe too intelligent for some of the work he had to do in movies."
Stone also spoke well of the leading lady for Donald Bogle's biography, Dorothy Dandridge (Amistad). "She was extremely professional. I never worked with any star that I liked better or was more competent," the director recalled. Stone's admiration was obvious from the way he showcased Dandridge from scene to scene, starting with her memorable entrance aboard the freighter where her beauty dazzles the transfixed sailors. For all the racially charged aspects, including a scene where Stuart Whitman forces himself upon Dandridge, kissing her violently, The Decks Ran Red didn't cause much of a ripple upon its release. Preminger reportedly taunted Dandridge about her work on the film on the set of Porgy and Bess. Still, it's a singular showcase for a magnetic performer who logged all too little time on-screen, but glowed in the few roles she did win.
Producer: Andrew L. Stone, Virginia L. Stone
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Screenplay: Andrew L. Stone
Cinematography: Meredith M. Nicholson
Film Editing: Virginia L. Stone
Cast: James Mason (Capt. Edwin Rummill), Dorothy Dandridge (Mahia), Broderick Crawford (Henry Scott), Stuart Whitman (Leroy Martin), Katharine Bard (Joan Rummill), Jack Kruschen (Alex Cole).
by Jay S. Steinberg