Re-Floating the “Mary Deare”

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

I don’t know where Michael Anderson’s “The Wreck of the ‘Mary Deare'” stands in the eyes of movie lovers these days. I don’t think it’s very much spoken of, which leads me to suspect that it’s dwelling in Movie Limbo. That’s a shame because the movie definitely has things going for it. It has a smart, unfussy script by Eric Ambler, working from a Hammond Innes thriller. It takes us into a world we really don’t know–the world of shipwrecks and salvage rights and maritime courts of inquiry. While I wouldn’t say that it consistently thrills, it does keep you guessing as to how things will work out.

In a way what was perceived as the film’s strength–American box office attractions Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston fronting an all-Brit supporting cast–works against it a bit. The film begins in media res–on a stormy night in the English Chanel, an ocean-going salvage ship, the “Sea-Witch,” partially owned by Heston, encounters what appears to be a derelict freighter, the “Mary Deare.” Heston boards the vessel hoping to claim the salvage rights, but his joy at the discovery that the ship carries a high-value cargo of jet airplane engines is soon tempered by his disappointment at the discovery that the ship’s captain has remained aboard her, thus nullifying her derelict status. These early scenes of Heston prowling through the darkened, storm-battered vessel are moody and threatening–it almost looks as though we’re in for a nautical film noir. Cooper’s entry is a shock cut straight from horror movies. In these initial scenes we’re meant to wonder whether Heston is in the presence of a man who is entirely sane–and his subsequent actions in running the ship aground on the Minques Plateau only bolsters that suspicion. But the fact that Captain Patch is being played by Gary Cooper cuts through the doubts we should be having about this character, even after we learn that Patch has become “captain” by virtue of his (accidental) killing of the ship’s actual captain. Had a lesser known British actor taken the part, we would have wondered as Patch’s actions grow more extreme and we learn these things about his spotty career at sea. But once Cooper and Heston are rescued and land at St. Malo, Richard Harris, not yet a star, did such a good job as Patch’s obnoxious First Mate that we immediately forget about Cooper’s suspicious actions–now we suspect that Harris is somehow involved in this affair, beyond merely having been an officer on the doomed ship.

Ambler, who was one the great thriller writers of the 1930s and 1940s before becoming a busy script-writer, neatly throws in a plot twist–far from this being a matter of whether or not Cooper was a competent officer, the question becomes, what was the “Mary Deare” actually carrying? The manifest said jet airplane engines, and that’s what the owners want to be compensated for, but Cooper is increasingly certain that those jet engines were never on his ship–that they were, in fact, off-loaded to another ship prior to his arrival on board and sold to Red China. About a decade earlier, Anderson had directed and Ambler had penned the script to “Yangtze Incident,” a factual re-telling of a Red Chinese attempt to capture a British warship. So we’ve gone from movie star Richard Todd stalwartly resisting the Chinese to character actor Peter Illing plotting to sell them jet engines. Thus Gunderson, the ship’s British owner, would be guilty not only of insurance fraud but possibly of treason as well. Unfortunately, in the absence of positive proof, and in the light of Cooper’s insistence that the ship was sabotaged by its own crew, he appears to be making desperate charges to deflect attention from his own failings.

The mid section of the film–the bit leading up to and including the hearing before the Maritime Board of Inquiry could have been deadly dull, but Anderson marshals a battery of top acting talents including Alexander Knox, Michael Redgrave, Emlyn Williams and John LeMesieur to portray the various attorneys and company representatives who leave Cooper looking increasingly isolated and foolish, as Harris sits smirking through Cooper’s ordeal.

The film concludes in the best thriller tradition with Cooper and Heston launching a daring nighttime raid on the freighter, now under salvage, and fend off an attack by Harris and his minions, on board to finish the job of scuttling her, to prove that those crates of supposed engines contain nothing but rocks.

“The Wreck of the ‘Mary Deare'” is a well-made film that perhaps attempts to be too many things–a thriller, courtroom drama, a high-seas adventure–to be consistently excellent at any one of them, but its moody opening sequences and Cooper’s attempt–in line with such films as “They Came to Cordura” and “The Hanging Tree”–to alter his screen persona from stalwart to edgy and conflicted make this a worthwhile film to be seen at least once. I hope this doesn’t sound like damning the film with faint praise–I actually do like it.

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