The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Fred MacMurray 2

The Great Strawberry Case of ‘44

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1954, what a year for film! Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, A Star Is Born, On the Waterfront, Seven Samurai – to name a few. Among this year of outstanding films was The Caine Mutiny; a picture which has all the hallmarks of an event movie – based on a hit novel, an ensemble cast of big names, extremely lush production values. Aside from the high-end Hollywood spectacle on offer, The Caine Mutiny is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve ever seen. I appreciate these message pictures which came from producer and later director Stanley Kramer which show that people and life itself is complicated and can’t always be simplified to basic terminology. There is never a dull moment during the two hour run time of The Caine Mutiny, although director Edward Dmytryk wanted the film to be three and a half to four hours long and with the film being as layered as it is in its current form, it probably could work drawn out to a much longer length.

There’s little which would make the production values of The Caine Mutiny better. The film likes to show off those US Navy ships and their docks in the glorious new widescreen format. The only minor criticism would be the implemented stock footage which does stick out although considering such shots would have been near impossible to film then it’s understandable. Likewise, the typhoon sequence has some very impressive model work, convincingly making a pool (presumably) in the Columbia backlot look like the Pacific Ocean during a great storm. The music score is also one among one of composer Max Steiner’s best; romantic, exciting and even has a swashbuckling tone to it.

Actor Robert Francis is not a hugely charismatic presence with or without the other big-name stars but it’s fitting to cast an unknown and rather plain actor as the POV of the viewer. Ensign Willis Seward “Willie” Keith is a character the average moviegoer can project onto as the average Joe entering this world for the first time. The romance subplot involving his love interest May Wynn (played by an actress who chose her stage name after this fictional character she played) is the one inclusion in The Caine Mutiny which is questionable; in other words, it has nothing to do with the main story and feels out of place. That said despite this I do enjoy these romance scenes as I am a sucker for this kind of 1950’s fluff such as the portion of the film in which they go out to Yosemite National Park – the most romantic location imaginable. Full of waterfalls, mountains, horse riding, an orchestrated version of the song “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me”, and no sign that there is a war going on (not to mention May Wynn is not bad on the eyes).

The cast and performances in The Caine Mutiny are exceptional. I never felt like I was watching actors but rather actual nay personal (we even get a pre-fame Lee Marvin in a small part offering some comic relief). I do find their military etiquette to be very pleasurable to listen to with there never being a moment when anyone sounds rude. Van Johnson, the boy next door himself is surprisingly commanding in the role of Lieutenant Steve Maryk. Even the scars on his face which he obtained from an accident when filming A Guy Named Joe (1943) are not hidden with makeup, helping to aid his performance.

Fred MacMurray, on the other hand, is an actor I find far more interesting when he is cast against type as is the case in the role of Lieutenant Tom Keefer; an elitist snob who thinks the Navy is beneath him and is much more interested in writing his novel. – His character is very much the opposite of Van Johnson’s. His thing of playing an amateur psychiatrist was just a little game to him until it later dawns on him the seriousness of the situation. However MacMurray’s performance is very subtle, you barely catch onto these traits unless paying close attention to his performance, another aspect which really gives The Caine Mutiny such re-watch value.

However, let’s talk about the main star of the show. Queeg; a name as infamous as Bligh. The role of Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg is one of the finest performances of Humphrey Bogart’s career (and the inspiration for one of my favourite Red Dwarf episodes). Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson all played tyrannical ship captains in what I view as the Tough Guy Tyrannical Ship Trilogy (The Sea Wolf, The Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts).

Queeg is one complex character whom alone makes the movie worth watching multiple times to fully dissect him. There is a subtle, pathetic streak to Queeg (even his posture is rather bent at times); he fails to bond with his crew even though he earnestly tries. During the first meeting with his crew, he brings out a pair of clacking metal balls upon viewing a crew member with an un-tucked shirt; metal balls which just make things feel awkward and uneasy (he probably would have a fidget spinner if the movie were made today). – From day one it’s not hard to see why the crew did not warm up to him. While it could be argued Bogart is too old for the role of Queeg (it is stated in the film he was an ensign only 8 years earlier), this can more than easily be looked over as Bogart is so good and synonymous with the role. Even a moment in which Queeg talks with such confidence in relation to the missing quart of strawberries while simultaneously buttering crackers is very entertaining to watch.

The question does have to be raised if the crew had it too easy before Queeg came on board? Like the vessel in Mister Roberts, The Caine is a slack, dead-end ship. Regardless Queeg plays by the book to an obsessive degree and he overreacts to the breaking of rules which are trivial in the grand scheme of things as seen in the famous missing strawberries scene. His obsessive pre-occupation with the rules also puts the ship in danger as seen during the minesweeping sequence. Likewise, during the typhoon sequence in which the actual mutiny on board the Caine occurs, Queeg is clearly terrified and becomes paralysed with this fear. Yet Queeg is not the villain of The Caine Mutiny, he does not act in malice and it’s easy to empathise and feel sorry for him. – “A captain’s job is a lonely one. He’s easily misunderstood”.

The final third of The Caine Mutiny is comprised of a court-martial and oh is it gloriously fascinating as I am glued to the screen and eating up every word of it. Unlike many other Hollywood courtroom dramas there are no over the top hysterics but rather the actors remain subdued. That doesn’t make it any less intense though, thanks in part to the powerhouse acting presences of Jose Ferrer and E.G. Marshall as Lieutenant Barney Greenwald and the prosecutor Lieutenant Commander John Challee respectively.

It’s surprising the United States Navy would be involved in a film which portrayed a mentally unbalanced man as a captain as well as involving a mutiny (albeit a legalistic mutiny and not a violent one). The word “Mutiny” is even in the title of the film although I’m sure they would rather have played play linguistic semantics and called it an “Incident”. The film even opens with the disclaimer “There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy” – itself a disputable historical fact. Mayrk (Van Johnson) initially has difficulty obtaining a lawyer to defend him as the Navy’s lawyers refuse to be in the position of having to testify against a commanding officer. While a film like this can be interrupted in many different ways, I’m left feeling it doesn’t paint a great picture of the navy establishment due to the ignorance on display with the dismissing of the crew’s actions based on a preliminary investigation. As Greenwald puts it bluntly “I think that what you’ve done stinks”.

I remember during my first time watching court marital, the moment which really stuck with me was the point brought up by the prosecutor asking Maryk how he was able to diagnose a mental illness without having the qualifications to do so. This struck me as an incredibly thought-provoking point although watching the movie years later it’s become apparent to me the prosecutor’s use of sophistry when questioning those at the stand. In relation to the aforementioned point, the prosecutor asks Maryk if he has had training in psychiatry or medicine to which Mayrk answers “none”. He also asks Mayrk to define the terms “schizophrenia“, “manic-depressive” and define the difference between “paranoid” and “paranoia”, all of which he fails to do. Isn’t it obvious to determine if someone is mentally unwell even with little knowledge of the subject matter?

Mayrk clearly does not have the ability to effectively defend himself on the stand and looks weak as a result. He is also asked immaterial questions about his school grades which his lawyer Greenwald raises no objection to (nor does he object to anything during the trial). Due to his unpreparedness, Mayrk reluctantly accepts the prosecutor’s narrative that himself and not Captain Queeg is in the wrong (“Isn’t it possible that, under pressure, you became erratic and couldn’t understand the captain’s sound decision?”). We also see the prosecutor put words in the mouth of the Lee Marvin character after he referred to the Captain’s actions as “strange”. The prosecutor then proceeds to straw-man him before he has a chance to defend himself which he clearly doesn’t the intellect to do so and accepts the mischaracterisation of what he may have been attempting to say.

Similar lines of questioning are used when the prosecutor asks Keith “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” followed by asking who is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering; an ensign who has spent little over a year abroad a ship or an experienced captain of eight years? Isn’t such a question irrelevant when the sight of a foundering ship is obvious? Keith does deal nicely with the lines of questioning he receives such as when the prosecutor asks condescending questions such as “did the captain rave and make insane gestures” while waving his hands about, to his sarcastic response of “Thank you for your expert opinion” in relation to Keith’s response about the captain’s state. At one point Keith is asked “Are you aware that the captain has been pronounced completely rational by three qualified psychiatrists?”, to which he responds “They weren’t on the board the Caine during the typhoon sir”. Oh! #ThugLife.

Greenwald does a far more honourable job at questioning and is much more of a class act, not taking part in fallacies. He also knows how to play the game when it comes to the delicate matter of questioning a Naval officer of whom to disrespect would be a punishable offence. He states: “It’s not the defence’s contention that Lieutenant Commander Queeg is a coward. Quite the contrary. The defence assumes that no man who rises to command a United States naval ship can possibly be a coward. And that, therefore, if he commits questionable acts under fire, the explanation must be elsewhere”.  That said I’m not a legal expert so I’m happy to be corrected or challenged on these observations.

When Queeg does take to the stand, Bogart’s acting is the stuff of legend. A confident and cocky Queeg gradually lets himself go and of course, he brings out the clacking metal balls. When you use a term like “geometric logic” to describe how you intended to prove the theft of strawberries then you know you’ve dug your own grave. The culmination of this breakdown is filmed in a single, uncut, close up shot and is one of the most riveting pieces of acting I’ve ever witnessed.

We are never actually told what Queeg’s verdict is but the crew of the ship to celebrate the outcome at a party. Greenwald joins the procession only to give a monologue on how the crew where at least some degree complicit in the situation, pointing to the time when Queeg came to them for help and they “turned him down”. Needless to say, Greenwald is successful in changing their feelings over the situation and killing the mood of the party. This monologue is successful in being immensely thought-provoking and raising many of questions of any similar situation. Who is the victim? Who is the guilty one? Who disrespected who first? The one issue I would take with this monologue though is that it absolves Queeg of any personal responsibility.

Many people will say that movies are a mean of escaping reality; The Caine Mutiny shows how movies can be a means of understanding reality. Grab your ice cream and strawberries and enjoy!

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A Star Is Born (1954)

What Price Hollywood?

It’s hard to believe a mainstream film made as late as 1954 has strands of lost footage, yet that is the case with A Star Is Born. The inserts of production photographs over the surviving audio track in the restored version is mildly irritating, so I can just hope and wait that an uncut version of the film will surface one day.

A Star is Born is the ultimate showcase for the incomparable talent that is Judy Garland. The film’s title couldn’t be more apt as this is the role she was born to play in the film her career had been building up to. Every song to come out of her mouth is sang with such emotional intensity, and with this being as much a drama as it is a musical, Garland acts her little heart like never before with her monologue at the end of the film always leaves me stunned. Her performance is surely contributed by the movie very evidently tapping into Garland’s own past insecurities; such as the scene with Esther and the makeup department men.

As much as A Star Is Born is Garland’s big moment in the sun, it is also one of the high points of James Mason’s career in a performance which is nothing short of magnificent (thanks in part to that heavenly voice of his). The character of Norman Maine is right out of a classic tragedy; a man who has accepted his doom rather than fighting against it. He is a tragic figure wearing a mask while joking and makes light about his failing career and his dependence on alcohol. His only remaining hope is that his name will continue to be remembered through the success of his wife’s career (a career from a star which he created) if he dies he will continue to exist through his wife. George Cukor had tackled this material before, first in What Price Hollywood? (1932) and later in Dinner at Eight (1933) in which John Barrymore played the alcoholic, washed up actor Larry Renault. Like Norman Maine, Renault succumbs to the bottle, although has a demise without any optimistic ending that Norman Maine has. The other real standout member of the cast is Jack Carson as Matt Libby the publicity department executive. Carson often played roles such as PR agents but it’s not hard to see why as the man has the born look of a con man.

There is real movie magic within the structure as well as individual moments throughout A Star Is Born. The entire first act, for example, takes place over the course of one night and within this single portion of the film, we have a whole gauntlet of human emotion (fear, uncertainty, pity, joy, optimism). That scene in which Norman meets Esther for the first time and writes on the wall with lipstick has so much more poignancy when watching the film again.

With The Man That Got Away number, the song itself is amazing but the setting really sells it; a band playing in the early hours of the morning in a club after it’s closed, with the chairs on the table and the lights dimmed, just playing in order to unwind. Not to mention Garland’s vocals, just incredible. Likewise, the scene in which Norman tells Esther to stay behind and start a Hollywood career to a backdrop of city lights – you can feel the world on her shoulder. There is also the publicity department sequence in which Esther is thrown from person to person only to literally end up where she started at the beginning of the scene. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I do smell a metaphor here. For the final portion of the film, it goes right into classic melodrama territory, taking place in a home by the sea with the sound of crashing waves and hard winds.

It’s impressive considering this was George Cukor’s first film in widescreen, his first film in colour plus his first musical, yet watching the film you would he was already a long-established master of these forms in a movie littered with eye-pleasing compositions and a three hour run time which feels shorter than it is. A Star Is Born is a great movie to have playing in the background to enhance of the atmosphere of the room or just listen to the highly lush film score; I can happily listen to orchestral variations of The Man that Got Away over and over again. Likewise, the film’s use of locations in L.A. as well as the Warner Bros studio makes the film a time capsule of Hollywood circa 1954.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born is a movie which satirises Hollywood with its exposure of the actions of publicity departments and the lengths they go to in order to retain their public relations, however, at the same time it is a movie which celebrates Hollywood; an ideal balance between celebration and self-deprecation. A Star Is Born is an ecstasy explosion of old Hollywood glamour; a world of spotlights, big bands, big costumes, high-end nightclubs, backstage drama and the extravagance that comes with it. Likewise, the number Born in a Trunk is Warner’s attempt to create the type of impressionistic ballet sequence which MGM had perfected – and they certainly succeed, with movies like this it’s hard to look away from the screen.

Brigadoon (1954)

You Saw Brigadoon!

Brigadoon was originally conceived as a musical on the scale of a John Ford production but that didn’t come to be. Due to budget cuts, the entire movie is set bound but as far as set bound movies go Brigadoon is still an impressive display of production design. The sets themselves look impressive and expansive complete with fog effects, animals, vegetation and backdrops which do appear vast; something I imagine would be more challenging to accomplish in colour and Cinemascope. Brigadoon was made after the Technicolor era had ended and while it might be lacking the eye-popping colour of previous MGM musicals it’s still a beauty of a film.

Brigadoon was Vincente Minnelli’s first musical in cinemascope and while the widescreen technology allows for more space for the dancers I couldn’t help but notice there is not a single close up shot in the entire film. As it turns out Minnelli actually had disliked the use of close-ups in cinemascope. It’s not a major issue but I do find it to be somewhat of a mild irritance.

The fantasy setting of Brigadoon doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and requires the old suspension of disbelief. The village of Brigadoon rises out of the mist every 100 years for just one day thus the village will never be changed or destroyed by the outside world. Travelling through time at this rate the village will have gone 3,650,000 years into the future after only one year Brigadoon time. What happens if the location of Brigadoon has something constructed on it or succumbs to natural geographical change? Regardless the movie still works despite its illogical concept plus it is fun trying to theorise how it would play out. The Scottish setting of Brigadoon, on the other hand, is how the rest of the world imagines Scotland is like with its tartan layered aesthetic and I love it. The Scottish accents, however, do feel right and are not exaggerated as you would expect a Hollywood movie to do.

Gene Kelly and Van Johnson make an entertaining duo with Johnson playing the grumpy and sarcastic comic relief. But the real jewel pairing is between Kelly and Cyd Charisse as the romantic love interests. Just look at the Heather on the Hill number for a better expression of falling in love through dance. The soundtrack is no Singin’ in the Rain (but then again so few musicals are) but still a fine selection of gems and lush orchestrations, many of which help make Brigadoon a very relaxing film to watch and as pleasant a musical excursion as you could ask for.

Sabrina (1954)

Isn’t It Romantic? ‘Fraid Not

Sabrina is a movie which has ‘me’ written all over it. A romantic comedy directed by Billy Wilder and starring Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. I should be writing a review right now proclaiming my love for it, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Despite my best efforts, I can’t get emotionally engaged with this film. That was disappointing enough, although the thing which drove me crazy is that I couldn’t figure out why Sabrina doesn’t engage me despite being my cup of tea; a giant mug of tea with a chocolate digestive on the side.

I know many people comment on the issue of a young girl being involved in a relationship with a man old enough to be her father, but once you’ve seen enough classic Hollywood movies in which this is the case, then you get used to it. Sabrina’s love interest David Larrabee (William Holden) didn’t strike me as an interesting character initially, but on closer examination, I think he does have some personality in how superficial he is, but I’m not convinced you would want to kill yourself over this guy. Also, his hair bleached in this film, it looks terrible.

On closer inspection, I believe the major flaw in Sabrina is that the title character is simply not interesting. I never caught onto this previously due to Audrey Hepburn’s natural lovable charm, but when thinking to myself about what are this character’s personality traits, a tumbleweed went by in my mind. Her transition from ugly duckling to glamour goddess is unconvincing; I imagine making Audrey Hepburn appear unattractive is impossible, but her appearance when she returns from Paris compared to her earlier self is largely the same aside from her just wearing more classy attire. Due to this the scene in which David meets Sabrina for the first time after returning from Paris and he doesn’t recognise her is hard to digest. Compare this to the 1995 remake (which yes I think is a much better film), it gives the character of Sabrina an in-depth personality, a character transition which is more substantial and stronger chemistry between the leading lady and her two male co-stars, but that is for another review.

Bogart’s role is the only character in the triangle who I find has any character development, playing against type as a sympathetic businessman. I find Sabrina isn’t without its moments, such as William Holden getting glass up his…you know. Was this word commonly known in 1954? Did 1950’s moviegoers get the joke? Sabrina is more ordinary than Wilder’s other movies, and I feel it could have been directed by anyone. I assume Wilder wanting to direct something lighter for a change, not that there’s anything wrong with that, however, this is his only movie from the 1950’s which I don’t like. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

The Country Girl (1954)

Bing on a Binge

It’s good enough when a movie can impress me with an excellent performance delivered from an actor whom I didn’t think had the chops to do so, now multiply that by three and you’ve got The Country Girl.

I had only previously seen Bing Crosby in several musicals and comedies. He’s never struck me as an enigmatic screen presence but serviceable none the less. Thus surprise performance # 1 in The Country Girl. Why didn’t Crosby do more dramatic roles in his career? This is one of most powerful performances I’ve ever seen as a washed-up alcoholic performer who has hit rock bottom. Like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend and Jack Lemon in Days of Wine and Roses, Crosby’s performance has helped convince me never to start drinking (or at least that would be the case since I’ve never had any intention of starting).

Yet I would still say he’s outdone by William Holden, surprise performance #2. I’ve found Holden to be very hit or miss as an actor, possibly relying on great directors to get a good performance out of him otherwise he comes off to me as forgettable. The jury is still out on his abilities as an actor but never less after watching The Country Girl again, I can say this is my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver giving so much raw energy as a driven stage producer.

Finally in the triangle of surprise is Grace Kelly. Prior to watching The Country Girl, I was becoming increasingly anti-Grace Kelly, questioning if she was even a very good actress. Here in this dowdy, playing against type role, my opinion of her changed. I have a rule when it comes to reviewing not to talk about Oscars as I see complaining about awards to be futile and cliché. Yet this is one exception in which I’m forced to break it due to the controversy surrounding her win. Judy Garland’s role in A Star Is Born is one of my favourite film performances of all time and should have won her the Oscar that year however if The Country Girl had been released most other years I would have been more than happy to see Grace Kelly get the Oscar.

Without delving into a mindless praise fest I really was left flabbergasted by this trio of performers aided with the help of the film’s unforgettable sense of atmosphere as Grace Kelly puts best herself: “There’s nothing quite so mysterious and silent as a dark theatre, a night without a star.”