*This post is one great big spoiler.
There’s a neat villain bait-and-switch in the 1954 drama The Caine Mutiny.
This film, based on the novel by Herman Wouk, is about a crew on an aging minesweeper during WWII. The script cleverly muddies the waters (ha ha) as it resets the parameters of villainy.
When the tired, caustic captain of the Caine is replaced by a new spit-and-polish leader (Humphrey Bogart), we expect a little friction from a crew unused to strict navy procedures. What we do not expect, though, is a mentally-unstable Bogart who won’t accept responsibility for his errors, and chastises crew members for minor infractions – whether real or imagined.
The movie would have us believe Bogart’s character is the villain, but Bogart the actor doesn’t entirely play it that way. He presents a man who is fearful, confused and easily panicked. He also has his pet obsessions which make crew members (and we the audience) feel apprehensive.
It is the ship’s Communications Officer (Fred MacMurray) who first becomes wary of Bogart’s mental capacities. He eventually convinces the Executive Officer (Van Johnson) that Bogart might be paranoid and unfit for his post. Johnson agonizes over his loyalty to navy regulations vs. the worrisome behaviour of his commanding officer.
It is during a wild storm at sea when Bogart makes bizarre decisions that put his ship and his crew in jeopardy. Johnson finally relieves Bogart of his command and, in doing so, ensures the crew and the ship survive.
Upon return to the U.S., however, Johnson faces a court martial for mutiny. It is during this trial that we realize the villain wasn’t Bogart after all. It was our chum, MacMurray, who kept us laughing with his witty one-liners.
Alas, MacMurray is someone we’ve been cheering for. His character is glib, amusing and savvy. He is the film’s comic relief, the person who voices our suspicions about Bogart. (MacMurray on Bogart: “This is the magnificent saga of a man whose lack of charm is exceeded only by his lack of intestinal fortitude.”)
MacMurray consistently disdainful of Bogart. He smirks when Bogart speaks and gives meaningful glances to other cast members. MacMurray sells us faulty merchandise when he does this; he convinces us Bogart is a crackpot who is unworthy of help or sympathy.
It is interesting, though, to compare the attributes MacMurray dislikes in Bogart with those of his own personality.
For example, he has nothing but derision when Bogart clumsily sidesteps responsibility, but MacMurray’s sidestep is sublime. He’s dumbfounded when Bogart perceives a theft of canned strawberries, but perceives he himself to be a master of psychiatry. He ridicules Bogart’s cowardice, but proves himself to be just as skittish.
Like Bogart, MacMurray operates under the assumption that he has everything under control. He knows what he’s doing, and we believe him.
After insisting Johnson stage a mutiny for the better part of the movie, MacMurray is suddenly vague during the court martial. Oh no, he never speculated about Bogart’s mental state. He had no idea what was really going on. After all, wasn’t he shocked – shocked! – to learn Johnson had taken control of the Caine?
MacMurray offers a perfect portrayal of a man who doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. He’s just someone who’s looking after Number One; others can tidy up the resulting mess.
The Caine Mutiny is a fascinating film with a lively script and a fabulous cast. In our opinion, it bends the traditional notions of villainy in a shrewd way.
The Caine Mutiny: starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Stanley Roberts & Michael Blankfort. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1954, Colour, 127 mins.
This post is part of THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and yours truly. Click HERE for a list of all dastardly entries.