Richard Attenborough was his part in 1963's The Great Escape. He played a driven, almost obsessed P.O.W. leading a mass escape from a prison camp deep in Germany. A flawed character, but a heroic one nonetheless. As I discover more of Attenborough's parts though, I'm seeing he played far more sinister, much more flawed, and much darker characters, like in 1955's The Ship That Died of Shame.
Having lost his wife during WWII to a bombing raid and struggling to adjust to a post-war life, Bill Randall (George Baker) is waffling along through his day-to-day life. One day at a reunion of former sailors, Bill meets George Hoskins (Attenborough), a former member of his crew on a motorized and heavily armored patrol boat. Hoskins seems to be very well off, and Bill quickly finds out why. He's involved in smuggling actives through the English Channel, and Hoskins is offering him a job. He's even managed to track down their patrol boat -- the 1087 -- so they can use that in their activities. Smuggling some generally innocent items, Bill agrees, but the items start to change, and the boat starts to malfunction. What exactly is going on?
Another case of stumbling across a movie on Netflix, I wasn't sure what to expect of this 1955 British war film from director Basil Dearden. The plot synopsis sounded like a zany story of a boat with a heart who starts to act up against its owners and their actions. As a Disney fan, my first thought was that I stumbled into a prequel of sorts to The Love Bug. How could Herbie the VW Bug in a post-WWII story not be good?!? Well, I either misread it, misinterpreted it, or it was just a crappily written synopsis. It's straight drama, the boat's "objections" to the smuggling kept generally low-key (i.e.; the engine dying, the wheel refusing to turn) while avoiding too much in the way of heavy-handed symbolism or message.
On the whole, 'Ship' is surprisingly good because it manages to stay low-key. The World War II backdrop is a good jumping off point -- including an opening daring raid that introduces the crew of the 1087 -- but the focus is more on how the sailors and soldiers respond after the war and the fighting is done. We see through Bill's eyes that he's floundering along, unsure what to do with himself. Reunited with his old ship and part of its crew, Bill is rejuvenated, given a new lease on life. Hoskins is just the opposite, reveling in the black market business of smuggling. A third crew member, Bertie (Bill Owen), also jumps at the chance to get back to work in any way possible, only starting to question what they're actually doing when the cargo on-board gets far more sinister.
Playing George Hoskins, Attenborough does a great job in one of two starring parts. He isn't an out and out bad guy -- always the shades of gray -- but at the same time, you can't call him a hero either. His intentions are money as he undertakes the smuggling business. The cargo changes, and George, Bill and Bertie all begin to question what exactly all this trouble is worth. Attenborough does a great job portraying him down the middle. We're not always sure of his intentions, and the ride getting there is more fun because of it. Randall is okay as Bill, a one-note downer performance, while Owen as Bertie is similarly solid if not so memorable as Bertie. The dynamic among the three is more important than the individual here. Bernard Lee is a scene-stealer as a customs officer who cuts across the path of the refurbished 1087 a few times with Roland Culver playing the villainous Major Fordyce, Hoskins' source for jobs. Virginia McKenna has a small part as Helen, Bill's wife.
There isn't anything particularly new or innovative about 'Ship,' but there's something different I can't quite put my finger on. It is very British in its tension -- underplayed, low key and incredibly subtle whenever possible -- but that not so abrasive, not in your face style works for the better. I wasn't always sure where this one was going, but I ended up liking it after some early struggles. Worth a watch.
The Ship That Died of Shame (1955): ***/****