The Caine Mutiny
There seems to be a growing trend with movies for a film to try to foray into multiple genres. Usually the results are drastic; the plot tries too hard to be more than it ever should have aspired to. One film that succeeds where so many have failed is now almost fifty years old, The Caine Mutiny. Part romance, part war film and part courtroom drama this film holds its own with most of these genres. The story is basically told from the point of view of Ensign Willis 'Willie' Seward Keith, a recent graduate of the Naval academy, born into the privilege afforded by rich parents. At the start of the film it looks as though that even in spite of the raging war his future was pretty much secure. Then reality sets in. His girlfriend is a singer in a local bar, not a person ‘mother’ would approve of. Then Willie receives his first assignment aboard the Caine, a broken down minesweeper, part of the ‘junkyard navy’. The captain is the lackadaisical Captain Blakely (Warner Anderson). Willie also meets his fellow new Ensign Barney Harding (Jerry Paris), XO Lt. Steve Maryk (Van Johnson) and communications office and aspiring writer Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray). The captain is replaced by a career navy hard nose Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) things change on the Caine for the worse. Queeg begins by making some dubious decisions, chewing out a sailor for sloppy dress while permitting the Caine to cut its own tow line, he is a micro manager that is obsessed with picayune details while losing track of what is important. Instigated by Keefer, Maryk starts a log on the mental instability of the Captain. When the time comes to present their concerns to Admiral Keefer backs out and the others back down. The actions of Queeg become more worrisome, his behavior bordering on the dangerous. Certain someone stole some strawberries from the office’s mess he starts a witch-hunt disrupting the entire ship. Everything comes to a head during a brutal storm, Queeg all but freezes in the face of the dangerous weather. Prompted again by Keefer, in the most subtitle fashion, Maryk takes command of the Caine committing mutiny. The final act of this drama comes during the court marshal of the officers of the Caine. To defend them against the charges is Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) facing the lawyer chosen to prosecute Lt. Cmdr. Challee (E.G. Marshall). While there is no happy Hollywood ending here the story arc will keep you enthralled. We see here normally reasonable men drive to unreasonable actions. The young Ensign Keith is caught between a rock and a hard place added to by his romantic disappointments. War has taken its toll on the young man but not in the typical way most would expect.
This is a dream team cast. I cannot imagine assembling such talent today. Most people that grew up in the fifties and sixties will recognize MacMurray as the beloved father in the TV show My Three Sons. Most forget that MacMurray’s early career was mostly playing the heavies. Here he presents Keefer as the duplicitous writer, concerned more about selling a novel than the well being of those he serves with. He chides others into actions he himself would never take. Johnson is the perfect dupe for these plans. He is the likeable, albeit not too bright man that just wants to do what is best. The juxtaposition of these two men is brilliantly portrayed. Anderson as the young Ensign does a good job as the doe eyed innocent. This was his first film in a very short career. Still, he does the job of interjecting a naïve element into the plot, someone for the audience to root for. Ferrer does his typical excellent job of the lawyer that is disgusted by the actions of his clients but honor bound by his dual profession as military man and lawyer to do his best to get them off. It is easy to accept Marshall as the opposing counsel. His long running television drama, The Defenders, just extended this actor’s ability to play this type of a role. Then there is Bogart in one of the defining performances of a long career of excellence. The way he slowly immerses Queeg into the depths if instability, presenting a man that has made a career of the navy and yet is unable to rise further in its ranks. This character would have been a cartoon in less capable hands. With Bogart we are presented with a flawed human being under more pressure than we can imagine.
Directing this classic of American film was Edward Dmytryk. This man knew how to keep the all important pace of a film moving along. While some of the more romantic scenes may appear to drag they where integrated into the film to show that the young Ensign already had a lot on his mind when he was thrust into the quagmire of life on the Caine. The framing of the scenes were well done but after viewing both a full screen and widescreen copy of the movie I have to say that not much is added to the content that is out of the 4:3 area. The lighting is typically good but there are some spots where the transition between light and dark scenes may have been handled a bit better. This was a difficult job, bringing the complex novel of Herman Wouk to the screen. Dmytryk was able to get some of the best performances out of this illustrious cast.
As one of my all time favorite films over the years I have seen this film more times than I can readily recall. From the first time on an old fashion broadcast, television through video tape and eventually DVD each time I added this classic title to my collection it has been a vast technical improvement over the previous one. Now with the high definition edition available a new pinnacle in presentation has been achieved. Many older classic movies are finding their way to Blu-ray and true cinephiles could not be happier. The one comment that comes up with just about every classic I’ve seen ported to Blu-ray is; it is like watching the movie for the very first time. In the case of ‘The Caine Mutiny’ the first thing that is noticeable is the greatly improved color balance. In the DVD edition that preceded this one the colors were noticeably off. The original movie was filmed in Technicolor, a process known for its brilliant, well saturated color balance. In this Blu-ray version the colors pop, reminiscent of watching a first run movie in a grandly appointed theater. In the scene where men are scrambling over the deck in color coded uniforms each man stands out without a hint of blurring or color bleeding. Textures are also enhanced. From the grungy clothes in the beginning to the clean pressed dress later on. One detail that is small but delightful to notice occurs at the start. In the nightclub when Willie is visiting his girlfriend the costumer’s diligence is obvious with details such as the shade of her lipstick perfectly matching that of her gown. The audio has been remastered to DTS HD but it remains a little flat, oriented distinctively to the front of the sound stage. I found setting my receiver to emulate the reverberation of a classic theater will bring you back in time to 1954. This is a required disc for any serious collector.
Posted 9/11/11 (Blu-ray)