A Movie A Day: THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955)
If we knew the way and could set a course for Hell, she’d go.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Day.
[Every day Monday-Friday I’ll be reviewing a film I haven’t seen before as a way to fill some gaping holes in my film knowledge while at the same time building up a conversation about movie history. Each film will be connected in some way to the film before it, be it by actor, director, writer, etc. It’s a great time to be a film explorer, with TCM’s amazing programming, Netflix Watch Instant’s large library and studios starting up boutique burn-on-demand DVD services for their more obscure vault titles. So, I’m going exploring and I hope you guys will join me on my cinematic expedition.]
Today we follow Sir Richard Attenborough over to 1955’s Ealing Studios drama THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME, but first let’s look at our Buster Keaton short, a true masterpiece called One Week, which can be found on Kino’s The Buster Keaton Short Films Collection 1920-1923.
I saw this short for the first time a few months ago and it’s the thing that turned me from “you know, I should probably see some of Buster Keaton’s short films” to “Holy Fuck, I HAVE TO SEE ALL OF BUSTER KEATON’S SHORT FILMS!”
Revisiting One Week for this column only cemented Keaton’s genius for me. The General is a masterpiece, containing the most impressive sight gags and stunts that have ever been captured on film. One Week feels like all that crammed into 24 minutes. It’s a simple story of a pair of newly weds who are bequeathed a plot of land and a new house. Unfortunately, it’s a build it yourself house that comes in a box and when Keaton’s new wife’s jilted ex (who for some reason is helping out, driving them around, etc) swaps some of the numbers around on the boxes, Keaton ends up with a fantastically lop-sided two story house.
The scope of this simple story is off the charts. Any one of Keaton’s many throw-away gags would be the big moment of any comedy these days. I have no idea how Keaton didn’t break every bone in his body falling off of the roof, defying gravity with a ladder, being smacked by the house itself as it spins on its foundation during a storm or the very famous moment of the wall falling down on him while he remains unscathed thanks to an open window.
His timing is so on point (thank God, especially in the case of that window stunt), but that’s to be expected. What was a surprise to me was just how cutting edge his comedy was. There’s a moment where his wife (the adorable Sybil Seely) is taking a bath and drops her washcloth over the side of the tub. She starts to reach for it, her breasts coming dangerously close to being revealed, when she stops and looks directly at the camera, accusingly. The cameraman’s hand comes out and covers the lens like he was covering the audience’s eyes and when it goes away she has her washcloth again and is back in character.
That’s some next level shit there.
If someone tried to recreate this short today it’d have the budget of a Michael Bay film and be so full of CGI that it’d make me puke. Thankfully we have Keaton’s silent genius easily accessible in beautifully restored high definition, thanks to the folks at Kino. If you’re at all on the fence about checking out any of these silent shorts, give One Week a try. If you’re not instantly hooked then you’ll know for sure it ain’t your thing.
Now on to the movie of the day, The Ship That Died of Shame!
In a weird bit of coincidence Attenborough plays another second in command, but this time it’s on a gunboat during WW2 instead of a drunken co-pilot in the Sahara.
I’m going to start off by saying this is an extremely British movie… it’s so British that you might think they’re going to pause for a tea break halfway through. Lots of “old chap”s and the like… very prim and proper and a bit stagy for it, but the story is anything but, which pulls the movie out of the humdrum white bread stiff British cinema realm.
It’s established early on that Boat 1087 is a brilliant little boat, full of zest and as much a part of the platoon of sailors as the men themselves. George Baker plays Bill Randall, the skipper of the vessel, and the boat almost takes orders like a good soldier.
Now, I don’t mean that in a Disneyfied way. This isn’t Herbie the Gunboat, but the boat’s certainly a character in and of itself. Much like the Orca seemed to fit Quint perfectly, the 1087 fits Bill Randall and his crew perfectly as they silently attack Nazi occupied coastal territories, taking out gas depots and mines.
That’s not the point of the story, though. Only the first act centers on the war. After a bit the war is over and 1087 is retired, as is her crew. But that doesn’t last long. Fate has them reuniting albeit with a new mission.
It starts with Attenborough checking in with Baker, who has had an unsuccessful post-war life. His entrepreneurial efforts have failed and there’s a hole in his life. He’s one of those soldiers that can’t ever feel at home outside of war. In this case, the war turned him into a seaman and on land nothing seems to click.
Baker did have a chance at a real life, but his wife was killed in a bombing raid during the war… and thank God for that, too. Not to sound cruel, but there’s about 5 minutes of the movie devoted to Baker and his wife, played by Virginia McKenna, and the movie almost lost me there. It happens early on after a bit of excitement watching the boys on the boat blow the shit out of some large gas depots and it grinds the movie to a halt.
The melodrama was almost gagging me, but luckily she was bombed. Poor guy and all that, but it saved the movie.
With nothing left on land Baker is easily convinced to join in with Attenborough as they buy, repair and outfit 1087 to be a smuggling vessel. At first it’s harmless stuff… essentially just avoiding paying duty on wine, and the money’s good. The main crew are reunited, the boat included, and while there is tension when they bump into customs officials and have to hide their cargo, it’s all pretty harmless.
But as the story progresses the good money is not enough for Attenborough and the cargo becomes more and more questionable… from guns to a crate of fake currency that the Nazis were going to use to drive the British economy into the ground (as seen in more detail in the recent THE COUNTERFEITERS) to a mysterious, nervous passenger who we come find out isn’t a good man.
As the cargo gets worse and worse the boat becomes less and less dependable, almost in direct correlation. Hence the title.
It’s odd, to be sure… the boat was fine killing Germans because that was a noble cause, but smuggle some counterfeit money and it’s going to stall out. Fuck the Germans, I guess. The boat just hates them, but draws the line on weapons being brought into the country.
In a weird way this movie is the British answer to the American Noir craze. The black and white photography is fantastic and the crime element is very much in the noir mold, acting as a temptation that slowly, but surely pulls every single character down into darkness and despair.
The Ship That Died of Shame is a ballsy flick with a great performance from Attenborough, who starts off the film as a genuinely nice guy and ends up a villain, seduced by his own greed and ultimately his self preservation instinct.
I’d be willing to bet good money this film was an influence on Spielberg. There’s actually a line of dialogue from Attenborough that I swear to God is repeated by him some 40-ish years later in Jurassic Park. “Not to put too fine a point on it…” Delivered in the same cadence and everything. Plus a lot of the boat stuff looks very much like what Spielberg ended up shooting in Jaws, the refurbished 1087 itself sharing a bit of a resemblance to the Orca.
I also want to single out Bill Owen who plays the third in command, named Birdie, and the only real conscience of the movie. He’s the pure character that stays clean… of course that means he’s not going to have a happy ending, but he’s a much needed element of the story. Without him it’d be hard to see just how far both Attenborough and Baker have fallen by the last act.
Final Thoughts: This isn’t an easy movie to find… Anchor Bay’s box set of British War Movies has gone out of print, but if you can find it or see it playing on TCM give it a view. You’ll have to give it about 10 minutes, but once you’re invested (and you make it over that horrible melodrama sequence) you’ll follow it through to the bitter, unhappy end.
Upcoming A Movie A Day Titles:
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (aka STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN) (1946)
BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)
AGE OF CONSENT (1969)
BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956)
Tomorrow we continue on our Richard Attenborough kick going even further back to Powell and Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (aka STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN)!
Previous A Movie A Day (2013) Titles:
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