6 May 2005 | rmax304823
Ship of archetypes.
The only person aboard who seems to have his wits about him is Michael Dunn, the dwarf. His character tends to reserve judgments about people and things, more of an "observer," as he puts it. He has common sense too, and foresight. And as a matter of fact, he gives one of the few outstanding performances, although he's always good. Equally memorable are Lee Marvin as a washed up baseball player and Oskar Werner as a disillusioned ship's doctor. The other performances are competent, but these three are rather more than that.
Most of the comedy is provided by Dunn and Marvin. Dunn and Marvin have a scene together that is nearly perfect in its dialogue and timing. Marvin is drinking and getting maudlin. He tells Dunn that he can't hit a curve ball over the outside corner. Dunn asks him to explain what he's talking about, and there follows this outrageous schtick in which Marvin describes with horror how -- once it got about that he couldn't hit a curve ball over the outside corner -- that's all he ever saw, curve balls over the outside corner. He remembers his father sitting in the stands and hollering at him ("even though he wasn't there") -- "You're a BUM!" At one point, without adumbration, he suddenly claps his hands to his face and bursts into a torrent of sobs. He smashes glasses on the table while demonstrating his failure, and a shocked and slightly frightened Dunn looks on.
When Marvin's outburst is finished, Dunn chuckles and asks something like, "Do you know how many people know what a curve ball is?" There is a long pause while Marvin stares at him, unsmiling, unblinking, his flabby lower lip pendulant. The pause continues. And continues. And continues. (It's an old scene-stealing trick -- delay your answer to make your lines seem more important.) At long long last, Marvin answers, "No." Dunn explains that out of a billion people in the world, only a handful even know what a curve ball over the outside corner is, let alone that Marvin can't hit one, so he's being a little harsh on himself. Marvin ponders this, then asks, "You know what I think?" And there follows another of those infinitely long pauses before Dunn answers. (The two actors and the director must have worked on this together for a long time, otherwise none of them could have helped breaking up with laughter.) Dunn finally replies, "No." Marvin says slowly and emphatically, "I think you're a sawed off INTELLECTUAL." Then adds, "Drink up, shorty." That scene, with its improvised quality, its near-perfect timing and acting, its camera placement, should be shown in every film class.
I don't want to leave out Oskar Werner who, along with Simone Signoret, provides the romance and the drama. He is a doctor with a heart condition and, out of pity for Signoret, begins providing her with the morphine she's addicted to. They fall in love. Now -- that's usually about the last thing I want to see in one of these "Grand Hotel" movies, a tragic romance. But this one WORKS. I can't remember many performances on film that improve on Oskar Werner's. He seems almost inspired and the role has depth enough for him to display some range too. I'm not sure the romance with its inherent conflict between the 40ish Signoret and the 30ish Werner would be as admirable as it is if it weren't for the actors. Signoret is not particularly attractive. She's overweight and has a husky voice and is a social outcast. If the role had been cast with a younger, beautiful actress, it could easily have been turned into just another star-crossed-lover sob story. It's especially because Signoret looks so beat upon and worn and dumpy that the relationship has some resonance with real life, which is always sloppy when it comes to romance. (We always fall in love with the wrong person, don't we?)
There isn't space to go into the plot, which isn't really worth too much attention anyway. I haven't read Katherine Ann Porter's novel, the title of which is based on a painting by Hieronymous Bosch that hangs in the Louvre and was finished some time before 1500. The plot has a bit of ambiguity. We sympathized with the displaced Spanish laborers in steerage, but two of their kids throw overboard a dog that belongs to a childless couple. A laborer dies saving the dog, but the "parents" don't inquire about his identity or show any gratitude. They care more about the dog's having gotten wet than about the death of a proletarian. I think we're meant to feel superior to the elderly couple with the dog.
Therein lies the problem I have with Abbey Mann and, to a lesser extent, Stanley Kramer. The simple people of color are good. The wealthy white people are neurotics. (Except for a dwarf.) The rich whites are dumb, too. "Listen, my friend," says a Jewish salesman, "there are one million Jews in Germany alone. What are they going to do -- kill all of us?" The viewer's memory toggles into "six million" right away, a figure that rings chimes in our brains.
I can't speak for everyone but I dislike being preached at by self-righteous screenwriters, particularly when they deal with "big" issues that must be handled delicately so as not to be cheapened. Abbey Mann accepted his Oscar in the name of "all intellectuals everywhere." I have a feeling that when he was writing "Ship of Fools" it didn't occur to him that he might himself be aboard.
Give wardrobe an award. At a costume party, Jose Ferrer as the Nazi, is dressed as some kind of jester or devil, and the costume seems to have leaped right out of Bosch's painting.