Chart a Course for Hell

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Once saw the last half hour of THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955) on TV and thought, That looked really good. Then forgot about it, mostly, and wasn’t even sure of the title, but when someone mentioned it in a comment here a while back, I remembered and made a mental note, and managed not to misplace it.

Basil Dearden directs, from a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat of THE CRUEL SEA fame. A British WWII gunboat sees active service, but after the war is bought up and used by three former crewmembers in a smuggling operation. In a semi-supernatural story element, the ship itself rebels against this dishonourable use. Dearden was very good with low-key occultism — he did some of the best work in compendium DEAD OF NIGHT, and THE HALFWAY HOUSE is not bad. His last film, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, is quite a bit cheesier, but its hoaky yarn of Roger Moore surviving a motorway crash only to be stalked by his doppelgänger gains a bit of atmosphere when you learn that Dearden himself subsequently perished in a smash-up on the same stretch of road depicted. Heart attack at the wheel.

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Here, he has a very sweet romantic couple, George Baker and Virginia McKenna, but that doesn’t last long, and then the film belongs to the blokes, with Baker lured into sin by a mephistophelean Richard Attenborough. Bill Owen, Roland Culver and Bernard Lee class up the joint.

There are many Richard Attenboroughs — you could say he was underrated, or that some of his aspects were.

Stout, dependable Dickie barely gets a look-in here, except as a front for devious doings.

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We do gets suggestive flashes of Psycho Dickie, the compelling front man of BRIGHTON ROCK and 10 RILLINGTON PLACE — Fiona’s favourite Dickie. She was shocked to find how sexy his Pinkie was. The dead-eyed lizard stare is something he does extremely well.

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Shitty Dickie, however, is much to the fore — the same spiv-like wide-boy foregrounded in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK, ONLY WHEN I LARF (for Dearden again). He’s awfully good at subverting his own pleasant persona. It’s often the way — actors who have a sweetness about them are always particularly loathsome when they get to play baddies. Tough guys in baddie roles are never so horrible (apart from Mitchum in CAPE FEAR). Think of Robin Williams; utterly unapologetic when cast as nasty pieces of work, but sometimes too ingratiating when playing sympathetic.

Baby Dickie, the limpid-eyed, star-child of the forties, is barely to be seen, the overlay of years having modified his Starchild face to something able to suggest a touch of the debauched.

Saint Dickie, the one who clones dinosaurs for all the children at Christmas, has not crinkled into being yet.

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Since this is an Ealing film, we can assume that the ship is The Ship of England. Boats are always societal microcosms — SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) was about how, after the war, those who had taken part would share equally in the good fortune coming our way (studio head Sir Michael Balcom was part of a secret group tasked with preparing the nation for socialism). THE MAGGIE (1954) was a miniaturized Scotland, which is itself a miniaturized UK, and it’s about taking the Yanks for a ride, harmlessly, to skim a bit off their enviable wealth.

If the ship is always Britain, or the Empire, then this is Ealing’s bleakest statement about the post-war world, where the nation has sunk from self-sacrifice and daring during the war (not overly glamorized, though), to dog-eat-dog criminous capitalism. The only solution is to kill off the guilty and let the ship sink itself. Perhaps this pessimism has something to do with Balcom selling his studios to the BBC — he tried to keep the company going without a permanent base, but it inevitably fragmented and eventually submerged.

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9 Responses to “Chart a Course for Hell”

  1. The Dickie I like best is “The Orpheus of the Undieworld” in Joe McGrath’s delightful The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom

  2. Still to see it, but it seems exciting. It’s the last major McGrath for me to view. We ran and quite enjoyed Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World, but it somehow never found a spot in Seventies Sci-Fi Week.

  3. It was released stateside as a double feature with Bava’s Danger: Diabolik

  4. Gods! That would be quite an experience.

  5. henryholland666 Says:

    So one of Fiona’s favorite RA characters is an insane serial killer who stuffs his victims corpses in to walls? Wow.

    I hope you sleep with one eye open and your hand on a pistol under your pillow. :-)

  6. It IS a terrific performance.

    John Hurt says on the commentary, “Dickie’s a great one for his props. One time I stopped them just before a take and said, ‘We can’t shoot: there’s nothing on this table.’ The director said, ‘So?’ I said, ‘Well, what’s Dickie going to play with?'”

  7. henryholland666 Says:

    Oh yes, he’s fantastic in “10 Rillington Place”, but while I love him in that and the still incredible “Brighton Rock”, I think my favorite acting performance from him is as Moran in “The Flight of the Phoenix”.

  8. Apropos of nothing, I’ve seen that title here and there but never the actual film. It sounds like a black comedy riff on those old Disney cartoons where a happy anthropomorphized object falls on hard times and is rescued at the last minute.

    The ones that come to mind are a pair of hats, a house, a little blue coupe, and a tugboat.

  9. The movie has to be careful not to anthropomorphise the ship TOO much — Dearden restrains his, at times, considerable expressionistic power and directs it towards the human menace (there’s a very creepy passenger taken on as contraband).

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