Director Michael Anderson stepped in to helm the movie that has a lot working for it, and a lot of things that just don't add up. The cast features two highly regarded actors -- one on the rise, one in his last movie -- and a story that should have been more interesting. It attempts to keep you guessing by keeping you in the dark, but in the process just ends up being frustratingly boring. By the time everything gets figured out there are some good reveals in a story that does come together, but even then it's so low-key that it barely registers.
Salvaging wrecks and abandoned ships in the Atlantic Ocean, Captain Mike (Ben Wright) and partner John Sands (Charlton Heston) stumble upon a large vessel in the English Channel apparently on fire with no one at the controls. Sands gets on board hoping to claim the abandoned vessel and salvage it for a pretty penny only to find a man, Gideon Patch (Gary Cooper), claiming to be the captain. He enlists Sands help in docking the ship, the Mary Deare, in the Minquiers where they'll abandon it and find land where Patch can tell his side of the story at a court of inquiry. Sands is instantly suspicious of Patch's motives, but the drive and greed for the salvage rights keeps him involved. Waiting at the court of inquiry though is a prosecutor (Michael Redgrave) who isn't going to pull any punches in finding out what really happened.
The high seas is as good a place to start a story because honestly, anything can happen there because you're relying on principles and morals of individuals to come out on top. There's no one to police crimes. You're on the water alone and are forced to fend for yourself. The opening sequences as Heston's Sands explores the empty Mary Deare are well-handled, full of tension because we wonder what really happened? Where's the crew? But once Cooper shows up, there's at least a wordless half hour of these two trying to keep the ship afloat and beach it in the Minquiers, a rock-ridden area off the coast of France. The pacing is really off and coming so early it makes it difficult to get into the movie.
More than that, the guessing game as to what really happened aboard the Mary Deare becomes tiresome. Here's a scene that is repeated at least five times. Sands: What happened? Patch: I can't tell you yet, just trust me. Curiosity only takes you so far unless you're given some sort of reason to be pulled along. There are some clues, big business intrigue, large monetary payouts, betrayals and murder all involved as Patch tries to prove his innocence so he can one day captain another ship. The intrigue gives Richard Harris (in just his 3rd movie) a crack at playing a bad guy as well, playing Higgins, a treacherous second officer. Harris is one of my favorites, but I prefer him as a roguish hero more than a straight bad guy. Truth be told, he's an intimidating villain.
Reading about the movie, the tipping point was Cooper and Heston starring together in a movie. This would be Cooper's second-to-last movie before his death in 1961 while Heston was in the midst of a string of roles that made him one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. There's a decent chemistry between the two actors, and they do dominate much of the screentime, but something is missing. Beyond the acting and on-screen persona, Cooper seems tired and looks to be going through the motions. Even when trying to swing opinion to his side, he's just not that convincing. Heston's part could have been filled by just about anyone, requiring him to follow along at Cooper's coattails, asking a question now and then and generally being frustrated. For two names as big as theirs, I expected more from the two lead roles.
That rings true for the whole movie, I expected more of...well, everything. The acting is nothing to write home about, the story is dead in the water almost from the beginning and attempts to liven it up fall short. As a whole, the movie feels very flat without a sense of energy or urgency to get things going and make it better. A disappointing end result.
The Wreck of the Mary Deare <----trailer (1959): **/****