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Reeling Backward: “The Caine Mutiny”

by on March 24, 2009
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Here’s an embarrassing revelation: If you’d asked me if I’d ever seen “The Caine Mutiny,” I would have told you yes. It’s considered one of the more iconic performances of Humphrey Bogart’s career, particularly the latter stage. The image of him rolling those ball bearings in his fist while muttering away as the unstable Captain Queeg is indelible, and I know I’d seen clips of it many times.

But shortly after starting up the movie the other day, it became apparent to me that I hadn’t seen it all the way through. I think because it’s one of those movies that gets replayed on TV a lot, I’d seen snippets of it here and there, and I had sort of absorbed it into my consciousness without ever getting the total experience.

Well, I’ve rectified that now, and it’s a fine movie, and Bogie is indeed great in it, and it’s a noble adaptation of Herman Wouk’s book, which came out only three years prior to the 1954 movie.

But it’s not perfect. And I think I know why: Willie Keith.

In the book, Willie is the central character and the guy through whose eyes we see Queeg. He grows quite a bit as a character, too, going from a pudgy spoiled rich boy to a lean and seasoned Naval officer. But in the movie, he becomes more or less a supporting player.

There’s a few scenes of his life off the ship, where he’s wooing a nightclub singer (a knockout May Wynn) and dealing with his overbearing mother. But aboard ship, Keith takes a back row to able performers like Bogart, Fred MacMurray and Van Johnson; in the courtroom scenes, Jose Ferrer and E.G. Marshall take center stage. Willie just sort of fades into the background.

Robert Francis’ performance as Keith doesn’t help; he’s bland and unemotional, and looking up his profile on I’m not surprised to see that “Caine” was one of his first, and last, starring roles.

The real dynamic is between Bogart, Johnson and MacMurray, with the former playing the righteous but dimwitted executive officer who relieves Queeg of his command, and the latter as the clever but week-kneed communications officer who goads him into doing it.

I was intrigued by how physically small Bogart appears in the movie compared to the other actors. It is not uncommon for male movie stories to be short, but there are a whole host of tricks filmmakers use to hide this (such as: hiring short extras, putting the star in lift shoes, or putting him on hidden platforms or runways, or shooting him from a low angle so he seems to loom). It seems like a conscious decision was made to have him appear small. According to a little Web research, Bogart was on the low end of average height, 5’8″, while both Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray were a few inches over 6 foot. Perhaps because Queeg is the villain of the piece, having him appear small adds to the conniving portrayal. Queeg has a furtive, almost rat-like quality to him.

I enjoyed “The Caine Mutiny” very much while recognizing its flaws. Mostly, it makes me want to re-read Herman Wouk’s great book.