Thursday, August 8, 2013
The Ship That Died of Shame (1955)
The Ship That Died of Shame was based on a short story by Nicholas Monsarrat. Monsarrat was an extremely popular writer at the time although he is now all but forgotten. His best-known book was The Cruel Sea and like much of his fiction, including The Ship That Died of Shame, it was inspired by his wartime service in the Royal Navy.
George Baker plays Bill Randall, the commander of MGB (Motor Gun Boat) 1087. An MGB was very similar to an MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat, the kind of vessel the US Navy referred to as PT Boat). MGB 1087 has a very successful wartime career, thanks in large part to her skillful handling by Randall and his First Lieutenant, George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough). MGB 1087 is much-loved by her crew and admired for her fine seakeeping qualities and her reliability, to the extent that they are almost inclined to regard her with the kind of affection that one would feel for a living creature.
Then comes the end of the war. That might have been good news for most people but it’s not really much cause for celebration for Lieutenant Randall. The war has taken from him everything he loved, apart from MGB 1087. And then she is taken away as well, withdrawn from service and presumably destined for the scrapyard.
That’s pretty much the way Randall feels as well, that he is no longer of much use. And then he runs into his old wartime comrade George Hoskins.
Hoskins has prospered since the war ended although he’s a little vague about what he actually does for a living. In any case he’s come up with an idea that might appeal to his old commanding officer. He has heard that MGB 1087 is up for sale. She’ll need a little work but with her powerful engines, her very high speed, her utter mechanical reliability and her superb seakeeping qualities she’ll be ideal for what Hoskins has in mind.
What Hoskins has in mind is smuggling. Randall is not too happy about the idea but Hoskins assures him it’s really quite innocuous. What harm is there in smuggling a few cases of brandy and other luxury items? What with postwar shortages and rationing and the generally miserable economic circumstances brought about by an incompetent government the little scheme cooked up by Hoskins is practically a public service. What sways Randall though is the prospect of getting back to the sea he loves in the ship he loves.
Initially it all seems to be working out rather well and Hoskins and Randall, along with MGB 1087’s wartime coxswain Birdie (Bill Owen), are doing very well out of their illegal but relatively harmless business venture. Then Hoskins starts to get ambitious. He joins forces with Major Fordyce (Roland Culver), another wartime officer who has found peacetime dull and unrewarding and has turned to the more exciting and much more prosperous arena of crime. Randall and Hoskins find themselves involved in smuggling of a kind that is rather more difficult to square with their consciences. Actually Hoskins seems to be very little troubled by his conscience but Randall is more and more unhappy and guilt-ridden.
The matter comes to a head when they are hired to smuggle a cargo that Randall just cannot in any way justify to himself. And even MGB 1087 seems to feel the same way. The ship is increasingly plagued by engine trouble and responds very sluggishly to her helm. Oddly enough this only seems to happen when contraband of a very dubious nature is aboard her. As soon as the goods are taken ashore she’s her old self again, as reliable and responsive as ever. But how long can this go on? How long can Bill Randall continue to justify to himself the increasingly immoral activities he is involved in? And how long will MGB 1087 continue to ply this unsavoury trade?
The central idea is perhaps rather far-fetched, although it should be noted that it’s never entirely certain that the ship itself is responsible for the troubles that seem to be plaguing her crew. That is certainly implied but it is possible to conclude that what is really happening is that her crew, especially Randall and Birdie, are starting to become careless and unskillful as they become more and more disillusioned and ashamed. In any case the story can be regarded as a sort of seafaring fable rather than a rigorously realistic story. It’s perhaps significant that Nicholas Monsarrat was fascinated by maritime legends such as that of the Flying Dutchman.
Director (and co-writer) Basil Dearden had a long and distinguished career and this movie is another example of his considerable skill. There are some exciting sea sequences, the pacing is taut and Dearden and veteran cinematographer Gordon Dines are able to capture a rather film noirish atmosphere of seediness, moral corruption and tension with shadowy shots mirroring the increasingly shadowy world that Bill Randall is being drawn into. The first half of the film takes place almost exclusively in daylight while the second half is dominated by night scenes and by shadows and fog. It’s all done quite subtly and very effectively, which was always Dearden’s signature.
This was George Baker’s first major film role and he handles it very confidently. Richard Attenborough was always at his best playing characters with some kind of psychological weakness or failing and he’s in fine form in this movie. Roland Culver is just right for the morass of moral squalor that is Major Fordyce’s personality. Bernard Lee is as solid as ever as a suspicious Customs officer.
The relationship between Randall and Hoskins is a crucial aspect of this movie, with Randall being confidently in command at the beginning but falling more and more into a subordinate position. Randall is basically a decent sort of chap who makes one small false step and finds that he is now on a slippery slide into despair and corruption from which it will be difficult if not impossible to escape.
Optimum’s Region 2 DVD is bereft of extras but looks superb.
The Ship That Died of Shame is not what you would normally expect from Ealing Studios but it’s an original and intriguing story turned into an entertaining and exceptionally well-crafted movie. Highly recommended.