Friday, June 10, 2011

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

"Strawberries, anyone?"

- World War II, 1944: Ensign Willie Keith has been assigned his first ship, a minesweeper on the Pacific front: The U.S.S. Caine. But Keith quickly finds the Caine to be a less than desirable assignment as the Caine is an old, battered ship and, under the watch of Captain DeVriess, is a mess of informality. Captain DeVriess is reassigned not long into Keith's stint aboard the Caine and old Navy man Captain Queeg assumes command.

Life aboard the Caine is drastically changed under Queeg's command; not only is Queeg a staunch by-the-book commander, his crew suspects that he might not be completely sane. Queeg's irrational behavior (particularly one incident with a bowl of strawberries), paranoia, and penchant for rolling steel balls in his hand begin to make his crew question if he really is "a Freudian delight." One night, after a combination of Queeg's frozen state of terror and stubbornness to not change course during a storm that almost destroys the ship, Second Officer Steve Maryk takes command away from Queeg under Navy conduct that states a Captain can be relieved of command if mentally unfit for duty. A court-martial ensues where Maryk and Keith must prove Queeg's insanity amidst evidence that says otherwise to a Naval Board that worships him - or face the gallows for mutiny.

The Caine Mutiny is packed with stars and this strong cast is the strongest aspect of the film. Humphrey Bogart was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance of Captain Queeg and the reason is clear: Bogart is excellent in a kind of role that he had never played before. The believability of the story and overall success of the film depends on Bogart's ability to portray Captain Queeg as maybe crazy but maybe not crazy, and he gets the job done superbly with a nuanced, subtle, and memorable performance.

The film's supporters are just as good as Bogart and it is hard to pick one clear stand-out among them: Van Johnson is excellent as the loyal, honest, and stand-up Second Officer Maryk; Fred MacMurray gives one of the more layered performances of the film as one of the most interesting characters, Officer Tom Keefer; and José Ferrer could not be better as Barney Greenwald, the officer defending Maryk and Keith in the court-martial. Familiar faces Lee Marvin and E.G. Marshall also give memorable showings and Tom Tully's performance of Captain DeVriess earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

The cast is easily the best thing about the film but most things that make up The Caine Mutiny make quite a good film. Stanley Robert's screenplay, Max Steiner's score, and Edward Dmytryk's direction combined with the fantastic cast work together like a well-oiled machine, creating a very entertaining film.

However, there are some minor drawbacks to The Caine Mutiny. First of all, Robert Francis' performance of Willie Keith is absolutely terrible. He is more wooden than the helm in his performance, stiffer than the mast in his line delivery, there is more emotion in a rusty hull than Francis in the film, a deflated life preserver is more vibrant than- oh you get the picture. Also, the film features a pointless B-story romance that means nothing to the rest of the film, is resolved far too effortlessly and hastily, and simply offers up little-to-nothing of value.

Overall, while I might not call The Caine Mutiny a masterpiece (or even the best 1950s World War II naval film (see The Enemy Below (1957)) I would undoubtedly count it as a very well-made and entertaining film and would definitely rank Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Captain Queeq among his personal bests. Though oddly enough, I would say that the best thing about the film was how it influenced a young British actor Maurice Micklewhite to change his name to Michael.... Caine.

CBC Rating: 8/10

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