Monday, November 25, 2013
Reeling Backward: "Morituri" (1965)
"Morituri" wasn't very commercially or critically successful. If it wasn't done in by its title -- Latin for "those who are about to die" -- then the clunky plotting in the film's second half did the trick. It starts out as an interesting and cerebral WWII espionage thriller, with Marlon Brando playing a charming scoundrel, and devolves into a confusing tale of mutiny and sexual intrigue aboard a German cargo ship carrying 7,000 tons of rubber.
Why rubber? According to the haughty British colonel played by Trevor Howard -- aren't all cinematic English military men puffed-up prigs? -- that much rubber will keep German army vehicles rolling across Europe for several more months. Without it, their control over Europe slips, so the fate of the entire war rests upon the decks of the aged ship Ingo.
(Have you ever noticed that in most war flicks, "the fate of the entire war" often rests on the people and events depicted in the movie?)
The Allies don't just want to sink the ship as it makes its way from Tokyo to occupied France, but capture it for themselves. To this end they recruit Robert Crain (Brando), a wealthy German military deserter living in luxury in Australia. He's blackmailed into posing as a Gestapo officer ("standard leader") and placed aboard the ship as a passenger. His mission is to disable the explosive charges used to scuttle the ship, so when the Ingo enters into an Allied trap in the middle of the Pacific, the precious cargo won't be lost.
The best and most interesting sequence of the movie is when Crain, now redubbed as Mr. Kyle, first boards the ship and must navigate the various personalities and power intrigues going on. Brando is a treat, playing a sly man of refined manners who must pretend there is a great, evil resolve underneath. Of course, he really is highly motivated, but not to the end anyone thinks.
The captain, Mueller, is played by Yul Brynner, who isn't too keen about having an SS man spying on his operations. Mueller's last cruise ended with his ship getting torpedoed while he was inebriated (medical treatment for an infected jaw, according to the official report). The Ingo represents his last chance to get back in the Third Reich's good graces -- something he desires mostly for the benefit of his family, especially his son, the commander of a destroyer operating in the Atlantic.
Mueller and "Kyle" clash immediately, with the captain restricting the Gestapo man's movements around the ship -- sure to put a crimp in his sabotaging style. So he enlists the aid of the first mate, Kruse (Martin Benrath), a fervid ideologist who believes he should've been given command of the ship anyway.
Things get shakier the further we go. Turns out there are plenty of political prisoners and criminals amongst the crew, who are being shipped back to the Fatherland to face their fate in one of those "all the rotten apples in a single barrel" strategies that only exist in the movies, and always seem to backfire. Soon Kyle is recruiting support from them for a mutiny, including Monkeyman (Hans Christian Blech), a blond tough who has a pet bird.
And then it just gets weird. Just as Kyle has managed to alert a British destroyer to the fact that the Ingo has been disguised to look like one of their own, a German submarine blows it out of the water. The U-boat is commanded by an admiral for some reason -- fleet officers don't generally limit themselves to a single vessel -- who is immediately suspicious of the purported SS agent aboard.
Meanwhile, they drop off the survivors of a passenger ship they previously torpedoed -- which is pretty unlikely; as we know from "Das Boot," there's barely enough room on a WWII submarine for the crew, let alone prisoners -- aboard the Ingo. Among them is a Esther (Janet Margolin), a Jewess and self-described "anti-German" who is none too pleased about her fate.
Captain Mueller offers to help the girl and advises her to hide her Jewish heritage, but instead she throws it in the face of Kyle (thinking him a loyal Gestapo man), Kruse and everyone else. She also offers to sleep with Mueller, tells her loutish fellow Americans she's open to a gang rape, and relates a tale to Kyle about being forced to have sex with her brother while others watch. I have no idea what this material is doing in the movie, but it brings the proceedings to a cold stop.
Director Bernhard Wicki and screenwriter Daniel Taradash were somewhat limited in adapting the novel by Werner Jörg Lüddecke, which contains this and many other ludicrous elements. (For starters -- why disguise Crain as a high-profile SS agent, instead of just a meathead member of the regular crew?) After the film performed poorly, the studio tried to re-title it as "The Saboteur," but it didn't help things.
When the ship gets to sinking, Wicki -- perhaps limited by his production budget? -- doesn't bother with special effects. He simply tilts his camera so it looks as if the Ingo is listing. But you can clearly see that the waterline of the ship hasn't changed.
Aside from the chintzy camera tricks, "Morituri" is a nice-looking film -- evidenced by its Oscar nominations for black-and-white cinematography and costume design. And Brando is charismatic and compelling as a man stuck in circumstances he doesn't really want trying to do the best he can. But the cranky plot sinks this cinematic ship.