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Your Bogie Fix:
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is assigned to work on the U.S. Naval minesweeping ship, The Caine. When the ship’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), begins to mentally deteriorate, Keith and several other sailors have to decide whether or not to mutiny.
What I Thought
One of the greatest casts assembled for a Bogart film, Director Dmytryk gives each of his players plenty of time to shine as he leads us through this story about the breakdown of military command.
The craziest thing to me about the movie is that Columbia Pictures somehow got the Navy coorperate for its production. Don’t get me wrong, there are some seriously majestic shots of the U.S. Navy’s fleet in Franz Planer’s cinematography, (some of the widescreen shots of the sailing fleet and the sailors working and running across the decks of the ships are pretty breathtaking, and I can only imagine that seeing this movie on the big screen would add to its enjoyment) but does anyone come out at the end of this film with their integrity intact? It seems that at one point or another, every character is severely dressed down for their conduct. The fact that the Navy signed off on the script surely shows the power of Hollywood’s charm over the world.
Still talked about, analyzed, parodied, and beloved today, The Caine Mutiny is a film that is so good in its execution and effect that it takes on an almost immortal quality in cinema history.
The Bogart Factor
Multiple sources (Sperber’s Bogart, Kanfer’s Tough Without a Gun, IMDB) claim that Bogart wanted this role so badly that he took a big salary cut to get it. It’s not hard to see why, as this was truly a defining role for a man who built a career out of defining roles.
To casual fans, Bogart is lovingly remembered as an actor who wonderfully played murderous gangsters and expatriate loners. To die hard cinemaphiles though, Bogart is revered for the roles in which he shook off his stereotypical trappings and disappeared fully into a character. Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, and Lt. Cmdr. Philip Queeg here – Bogart sheds his familiar, impenetrable, tough guy persona, and shows us a man who’s cracked to the core and starting to fall apart.
What an incredibly challenging role this must have been, as Bogart needed to swing wildly back and forth between crazed and commanding. One moment we’re meant to fear and ridicule him, the next we’re ready to fall in line and venerate him for his nobility and service.
What’s even more impressive to me after reading so much about Bogart’s life and career, is that he allows himself a vulnerability in Mutiny that I’ve never seen in any of his other roles. Consider the final courtroom scene where Queeg is asked to take the stand and then slowly fractured, bit by bit, as he’s peppered with questions about his behavior from defense attorney Lt. Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer). Knowing how smart and particular Bogart supposedly was about his appearance in films, this is a scene loaded with painfully unflattering close-ups. In bright and beautiful Technicolor, every wrinkle on his face is a canyon, the skin under his eyes hangs like sandbags, and his famously scarred lip seems like the central focus of every shot.
Queeg, the once great battle hero, trembles, shakes, quivers, and eventually loses himself into paranoid ranting. It’s a scene that Bogart must pull off, as José Ferrer’s final chiding of the Caine’s officers is dependent on his believable disgust of the way that Queeg was mistreated.
In my opinion, if it’s not Bogart’s finest moment in film, it’s in the top three for sure.
Every time I watch this movie, I’m reminded of how amazing Fred MacMurray was as a performer. Between The Caine Mutiny and Double Indemnity, MacMurray has left us a master class on acting. Much of what I love about Bogart could be said about MacMurray’s Lt. Tom Keefer in the way that you feel like you can see his mind actually thinking – weighing every option – in the moments between his lines. Perhaps my favorite piece of dialogue from the film comes when MacMurray warns the new Ensign about the ship he’s signed on to serve:
Keefer: (WITH A PLAYFUL OMINOUS) There is no escape from The Caine, save death. We are all doing penance, sentenced to an outcast ship, manned by outcasts, and named after the greatest outcast of them all.
Robert Francis as the young and naïve Ensign Willie Keith is impressively steady and thoughtful standing next to so many experienced legends. What a tragedy that he died in a small plane crash after only four films. He does a great job here, and because of his ease, its one of the few films where I don’t mind the tacked on romantic side plot.
Van Johnson plays Lt. Steve Maryk, one of the commanding officers of The Caine who eventually leads the charge to bring down Lt. Cmdr. Queeg. His humble and reserved portrayal is certainly a highlight of the film, and it’s only a testament to Bogart and MacMurray’s performances that Johnson isn’t he first actor we think of when we consider this movie. Johnson does wonderfully as the relatable everyman.
José Ferrer appears only in the final act of the film as Lt. Barney Greenwald, the defense attorney for the mutinying officers. There’s not much to say about Ferrer beyond the fact that he’s brilliant here. His drunken reproach of Johnson, MacMurray, and Francis at the end of the movie is gut wrenching, and serves as a powerful finale to what was already a stellar film.
May Wynn plays Robert Francis’ love interest, May Wynn. Wynn does very well here in her work with Francis, as their chemistry is believable and adds some good heart behind the larger story. Wynn loved the role so much that she took her character’s name as her stage name for the rest of her career.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a little nod to Lee Marvin and Claude Akins as the ragtag sailors, Meatball and Horrible, respectively. Their roles are small, but add some good comic relief.
Classic Bogie Moment
It would be too easy to pick out any number of Bogart’s moments in this film where he plays unhinged – but I think it’s much more telling of his skill as an actor to recognize a moment where he’s able to win the audience’s favor despite his wild antics and mental breakdowns. Just after overly scolding Ens. Keith for not following an order, Queeg becomes distracted to the point that he lets his ship run over its own tow line, cutting it loose, and losing a target that was being towed. We’re angry with Queeg and ready to see him eat crow for abusing the young men who serve him dutifully. Yet, it only takes seconds for Bogart to switch our opinion, as he bashfully asks Ens. Keith to, “Forget that I bawled you out.”
Bogart’s likability was the trait that elevated him beyond the stock gangster roles from his early films. Despite abhorred behavior, there’s just something about the guy that makes you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a delightful moment in the film.
The Bottom Line
If this is the only Bogart film you ever see, you’ll have seen him doing some of his greatest work.