The Caine Mutiny (1954): Bogart’s Final Masterpiece

At their wedding in 1945, Humphrey Bogart gave Lauren “Betty” Bacall a bracelet with a small gold whistle, a nod to their famous scene in To Have and Have Not (1944), when her character teaches his how to whistle.

Bogart had come a long way from his early, desperate, drunken days in Hollywood.  He had a beautiful young wife who adored him, an Oscar, and his career success showed no sign of waning.  He even had two children, long after he’d given up on the possibility of fatherhood.

He was running on all cylinders when he signed on for the infamous role of Lieutenant Commander Captain Philip Francis Queeg in Columbia’s adaptation of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Caine Mutiny.

It’s one of his most recognized and remembered roles, a character very different from Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe.

The film focuses on a trio of officers—experienced shipman executive officer Lt. Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), newly minted Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) on his first voyage, and jovial Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).

Queeg enforces Navy regulation to the letter—berating sailors for untucked uniforms and a cluttered deck.  While much of the crew chafes under the restrictions, at first Maryk takes them stoically, Keith is impressed, and Keefer rolls his eyes and makes cutting if funny comments about the commander.

Things change when Queeg is distracted during a training exercise and ignores the helmsman’s warnings.  The Caine ends up cutting a tow rope. 

It’s a serious mistake, the blame is squarely on Queeg, and instead of taking responsibility, he covers it up.

Suddenly, his dictatorial style takes on a sinister edge.

Keefer immediately stirs the pot, insisting Queeg is unbalanced and must be replaced.  Despite his private worries, Maryk tells Keefer to speak no more of replacing him.

The penalty for mutiny is death.

Queeg becomes increasingly unhinged, his paranoia reaching a crescendo when he goes berserk over strawberries missing from the mess hall, interviewing the crew for hours and searching everyone’s quarters.

The Strawberry Investigation

During a typhoon, Captain Queeg loses all sense of control and panics, giving the crew instructions that will surely kill them all.  Back against the wall and believing he has no choice, Maryk invokes Article 184 and takes control of the ship away from Queeg.

The mutiny is complete.

But this is no adventure film, like Mutiny on the Bounty—Maryk and Keith (who supported Maryk) are not celebrated as heroes, and do not sail away to a life of ease on a remote island.  They return to face the charge of mutiny.

It’s not going their way—until Queeg himself testifies.

Bogart plays the extended court scene masterfully—his Queeg rolls two steel balls around in his hand as he breaks down on the stand, his paranoia eventually on full view for all to see.

The tribunal has no choice but to find the men not guilty of mutiny, but dishonor stains them—their commander was clearly sick, so why didn’t they try to help him rather than mock him and stand aside while he made mistakes?

Watching the film, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that the Navy would’ve preferred the ship to sink than the officers to believe they knew better than the captain.  Wars are won by following orders, not using your head.

The film is excellent in every way—a portrait of cowardice, bravery, and breakdown in war.  Though the words are never used, Queeg is clearly suffering from what we would today called post-traumatic stress disorder.  He is not a monster whose downfall should be celebrated, but a once-brave man destroyed by war to be pitied.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.  Bogart was nominated for Best Actor for the third time, losing to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

The Caine Mutiny was the second highest grossing film of 1954.

Bogart was on top of the world.

But it was all about to come crashing down.

It started as a cough that wouldn’t go away.

By the time he made The Barfoot Contessa (1954) with Ava Gardner, the coughing was constant and frequently interrupted filming.  Often the take used was the only one where Bogie wasn’t coughing.

In 1956, Bogart and Bacall were scheduled to make Melville Goodwin, U.S.A, their first film together since Key Largo (1948).

Instead, Bogart finally went to the doctor and the diagnosis was grim—esophageal cancer.

In their eleven years of marriage, the young Betty had always looked to Bogie for strength.  He was her lover, her husband, her teacher.  He had shown her what Hollywood and life were all about. 

Now it was time for him to lean on her.

She nursed him through a brutal surgery and radiation.  When he wouldn’t eat, she tried to tempt him with all his favorite foods.  She kept a tight schedule around how many people could visit and for how long—she wanted his friends to see him, but wanted him to gain his strength.

As his illness ate him down to the bone, friends would gasp in shock at the sight of him.  Bacall would admonish them to keep hold of themselves and not upset Bogie.

Bacall took note of who came.

And who didn’t.

Despite the decades of fights and bitterness, Jack Warner came.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy came every night at the end, and cemented a lifelong friendship with Bacall.

As Joe Hyams writes of Bacall during this time:

“She was exemplary.  The way she handled his illness, the way she handled the press, the way she handled herself, and the way she handled her children.  I thought she was just great—very gallant, very gutsy, a very warm person.  If I were dying I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Humphrey Bogart died in the early hours of January 14, 1957.  He died in his and Bacall’s bed, and Bacall was wearing the robe she’d worn in their film Dark Passage when she found him.

He was 57.

Betty Bacall asked John Huston to deliver the eulogy, the last lines of which were, “He is quite irreplaceable.  There will never be another like him.”

Bogart was cremated.  Before his ashes were interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Betty put the golden whistle he’d given her in the urn.

She was a widow at 32.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • Server, Lee.  Ava Gardner:  Love Is Nothing.  2006.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Double Indemnity (1944): The Crown Jewel of Film Noir

#25 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity.
Double Indemnity (1944) opening

If you’re a baby boomer, when you think of Barbara Stanwyck, you think of The Big Valley, which ran for four seasons in the late sixties.  Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the tough matriarch who ruled the Barkley family in the wilds of 1870’s California.

But if you’re a film buff, you think of a cheap blonde wig and an ankle bracelet that seduced Fred MacMurray into murder.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)

You think of Double Indemnity.

Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, the fatalist femme in film noir.  

Stanwyck had made her career playing hard-boiled dames with soft centers, and Fred MacMurray was the affable everyman who ceded the spotlight to his female co-stars.  

Neither Stanwyck nor MacMurray had ever played characters as rotten as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff, the lethal housewife and willing insurance salesman who plot to murder Phyllis’ husband and abscond with the insurance money.

The results are electric.

Walter burns for Phyllis with a combustible mix of lust and greed that ultimately sours to revulsion.

And Phyllis?  She’s one cold fish from wire to wire. 

To satisfy the production code, Walter Neff murders Mr. Dietrichson off-screen.  Instead we see only a close up of Stanwyck as Phyllis.  She doesn’t watch the murder of her husband inches away, but stares straight ahead with a look of almost sexual satisfaction that will make your blood run cold.

Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) drives while Walter breaks her husband's neck in Double Indemnity (1944)
Phyllis drives while Walter breaks her husband’s neck

Things go wrong, of course.  Walter’s murder isn’t as perfect as he believes, and he’s dogged by his conscience and a suspicious insurance claims man.  

Phyllis and Walter soon wish to be rid of one another, but the murder between them binds them tighter than lust or money.

Events spiral out of control with consequences lethal to more than just Mr. Dietrichson.

Double Indemnity is number 29 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Movies.  It’s on every list of the greatest film noirs, often in the top spot.

It’s a classic about the rotten core of humanity, and the whole film orbits around Stanwyck’s performance.

And still she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar.  Once again she competed in a stacked field and lost to Ingrid Bergman for her performance in Gaslight.

Two women at the top of their game—it’s a shame one of them had to lose.

But as we’ll see next week, Stanwyck had one more chance at the golden statuette, and it all begins with a late night phone call.

Double Indemnity (1944) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)