Saturday, June 26, 2021

The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959)

The Wreck of the Mary Deare is an Anglo-American co-production with a script by Eric Ambler based on a Hammond Innes novel. It stars Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston and Michael Redgrave and was directed by Michael Anderson (a director with a solid track record in the action/thriller genres). With all that talent involved you’d be expecting something fairly special. Whether it lives up to that promise remains to be seen.

It was also, interestingly enough, originally going to be directed by a guy named Alfred Hitchcock.

The Wreck of the Mary Deare is a nautical thriller but it’s also a character study of a flawed man caught in an impossible situation in which nobody is likely to believe his version of events, whether his account is true or not.

John Sands (Charlton Heston) and his partner are salvage operators. Steaming through the English Channel in their little salvage vessel, the Sea Witch, they encounter a steamer which appeared to be drifting and abandoned. If this is the case then they would be able to claim the salvage rights. The steamer is the Mary Deare. Sands boards her, only to discover that she hasn’t been abandoned. Not quite. One man is still aboard, Captain Gideon Patch (Gary Cooper). Patch was actually the First Officer but took command four days earlier when Captain Taggart was lost overboard.

Due to wild weather Sands is unable to return to the Sea Witch. He tells his partner he’ll see him in St Malo.

Now things start to get mysterious. Patch claims to have been attacked by a member of the crew. He is secretive and some of his actions are difficult for Sands to understand. No distress call has been sent and Patch could have asked the Sea Witch to send such a call but he didn’t. Which is strange, since the Mary Deare is in no condition to reach port without the assistance of an ocean-going tug.

The Mary Deare is headed for a treacherous reef and Captain Patch’s response is even more surprising. Sands isn’t very happy about Patch’s actions since it’s his skin that is at stake as well as Captain Patch’s.

Patch and Sands survive and Patch makes a very odd request. Sands isn’t pleased about it. Patch pleads with Sands to trust him. For reasons that he himself cannot understand Sands decides to do so, a decision that could have all sorts of consequences when the Court of Enquiry meets to investigate the loss of the Mary Deare.

At which point the movie switches gears, becoming a court-room drama. And the saga of the Mary Deare becomes even more mysterious. There is only one way in which the mystery can be cleared up but it will be a gamble.

The movie will later switch gears again, back to being a thriller.

It’s interesting to watch two legends of American acting together in this movie. Gary Cooper was very near the end of his career, and his life. But as an actor he’s still got it. Charlton Heston had had a meteoric rise in the preceding few years and was close to his peak. They work well together which is important because the strange relationship between these two men is crucial to the movie’s success. The relationship is a mixture of suspicion and reluctant trust. Patch is a complicated man with serious character flaws but Sands seems to sense a certain basic decency in the man, even if sometimes it’s well hidden. Sands has some complexity as well. He’s in the salvage business to make a buck and he hates to miss any opportunity to do so but he has a certain sense of honour as well.

The miniatures work in the early part of the film really is superb. If the movie were remade today it would rely on CGI and I very much doubt if it would look anywhere near as impressive. The first third of the movie aboard the Mary Deare really is terrific stuff. Things slow down a bit in the court-room scenes but then we get some more fine action scenes at the end.

You could almost say there’s a hint of noir to this movie. It definitely has some psychological thriller elements as Patch struggles with his inner demons.

The Warner Archive DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in colour and in the Cinemascope aspect ratio).

This is a fine reasonably intelligent thriller with great special effects, fine acting and some emotionally depth. The scenes at sea really are done extremely well. Highly recommended.

If you’re a Hammond Innes fan then Snowbound (1947) is also worth a look.

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