Caine Mutiny, The (Blu-ray Review)26 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray.
Coming less than three years before his death a couple weeks into 1957, Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Navy Capt. Philip Francis (basket case) Queeg is still so provocatively disturbing that you can easily see how it made the cover of Time magazine at the time. We’re also looking at, in this price-is-right update from DVD to Blu-ray, historians’ No. 1 speculative pick for who might have won the ’54 Oscar in a hallmark year for male leads (think also A Star Is Born’s James Mason) had Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront not been such a no-brainer choice.
Whatever negatives you want to spout about this iffy adaptation of novelist Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer winner — and boy, does Max Steiner’s grotesque mood-killing score sound like somebody’s Navy recruitment theme — a powerhouse acting line-up delivers on its potential. In addition to Bogart, there’s Van Johnson doing the best dramatic work of his career as the reluctant lieutenant who saves a typhoon-faltering ship by relieving Queeg of command; imaginatively cast Fred MacMurray as the real (if amusingly smarmy) villain of the piece; and Jose Ferrer as the defense attorney who delivers a masterful pro job in a dirty ordeal he hates (helping destroy Queeg) during the ensuing court-martial. And even though the brevity of Tom Tully’s role as the ship’s initial captain makes the actor’s supporting nomination raise an eyebrow, you can’t say Tully doesn’t totally nail the part.
Still, the movie is irksomely antiseptic (it needed the U.S. Navy’s cooperation) and a bit too jokey for most of its first 90 minutes before catching fire during the courtroom climax. Or, if you prefer, during an earlier famous scene where Queeg employs precise measurements of sand to “prove” that some imagined crewmember with a secretly fashioned key has stolen some of the ship’s strawberries. (I’m reminded of Mad magazine’s expert parody where the captain begins ravenously eating the sand — which convinces the wavering junior officers that, yes, he’s off his trolley). In any event, Mutiny takes a much slicker approach than the one director Fred Zinnemann brought to adapting another Columbia Pictures blockbuster from a household-name World War II novel: the previous year’s still potent From Here to Eternity.
So it’s ironic that all this scrubbing doesn’t quite extend to the moderately washed-out look of this Blu-ray release — though I admit to a disadvantage in gauging Mutiny’s visuals from having missed the movie during its original theatrical release (when I had just turned seven). Matter of fact, the only time I can ever recall it looking absolutely great was in a 16mm IB Technicolor print (albeit panned-and-scanned) that was run at a friend’s house sometime in the late ‘60s. Even when programming the AFI Theater in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I never saw a print of the film that looked as radiant to me as some other Columbia IB’s of the ‘50s — so my jury is out for now. But I do wonder if there’s some mild film negative problem here, even though the result certainly isn’t ugly. (If you want to see Columbia-ugly of the period, try Miss Sadie Thompson.)
In any event, this is a movie I’ve always liked when what I really wanted was to love it. Softening my huge disappointment over having missed it in ’54, I had Wouk’s novel read by the time I reached seventh or eighth grade. But what I didn’t know for a couple more years, when I finally saw the picture, is that screenwriter Stanley Roberts scuttled perhaps the first third of the book; it has been said that studio head Harry Cohn didn’t want this baby to run more than two hours — when artistically, at least, it really needed to be in the ballpark of three. Roberts had a tough job, but the script is lopsided: If you’re going to interrupt the picture at key junctures with a romance between a story-central ensign (Robert Francis) and a nightclub singer (May Wynn as a character named May Wynn), either develop it or dump it. This said, the movie’s color values are actually at their best during this cinematic stuffing, in which the two take off for a romantic getaway that’s admittedly more photogenic that the dilapidated Caine’s repositories of rust.
With such a name cast and prestige property, there was a lot riding on the picture commercially, and it has been noted more than once (including on this release’s bonus featurette) that as the last movie in producer Stanley Kramer’s early-‘50s deal at Columbia, it ended up commercially salvaging all the others he spearheaded. Every one of them apparently lost money, including such worthies as Death of a Salesman, The Member of the Wedding, The Sniper (directed by Mutiny’s Edward Dmytryk) and Brando’s The Wild One. There must have always been an Esther Williams picture playing across the street.
Of the cast, it’s actually young Francis in his screen debut who chalks up the most screen time, just as his Willie Keith character is focal point of the book. It’s tough to gauge his performance with total precision because Dmytryk was basically asking him to come off as an earnestly callow privileged youth, an assignment he pulls off adequately enough. And there aren’t many cross-references to go on because following his lead performances in a couple semi-B’s at Columbia and a small role in John Ford’s The Long Gray Line, the small plane Francis was piloting crashed in a parking lot and killed him a little more than a year after Mutiny’s release.
Some effective cutting enhances the Bogie-Ferrer interplay in the climax’s emotionally raw cross-examination, though the give-and-take was formidable in the first place. Less than a year before the movie’s release, Wouk fashioned an acclaimed two-act play (The Caine Mutiny Court Martial) out of the novel’s finale — one so durable that Robert Altman was able to revive it as a 1988 TV movie. But long before that, the young Franklin J. Schaffner directed a 1955 telecast (featuring the stage version’s Queeg, Lloyd Nolan) that got nominated for several Emmys and won the prize for Nolan. Not by any means to equate the two characters, but you have to figure that the experience of directing a Queeg (an exact disciplinarian) didn’t exactly work against Schaffner when it came time for him to direct 1970’s Patton.