Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mara Maru (Warner Bros., 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Mara Maru, a 1952 Warners actioner that was one of Errol Flynn’s last vehicles under his Warners contract, a black-and-white adventure story casting him as salvage diver Gregory Mason, who’s running a business in partnership with Andy Callahan (Richard Webb) while at the same time not-too-seriously romancing Andy’s wife Stella (Ruth Roman, second-billed). He’s approached by a heavy-set gangster-type named Brock Benedict (Raymond Burr — and yes, it’s jarring every time we hear Burr’s familiar voice call someone else “Mason”!) to find a fortune in diamonds supposedly dropped at the bottom of the sea by a sailor with whom Mason served on a PT boat during World War II. Benedict has a rat-like little man named Steven Ranier (Paul Picerni) as his assistant, and Mason — who actually remembers exactly where the treasure is — is debating whether to go out with Benedict or try to find it on his own. Benedict renders the question academic when he first has Mason’s partner Andy killed and then burns Mason’s boat, so Mason has to ally with him.

There’s a lot of skullduggery and back-and-forth sabotage — Benedict destroys the radiophone aboard his boat, the Mara Maru (hence the title), so Mason can’t use it to call for help, so Mason sabotages the ship’s compass so Benedict and his crew can’t kill him because then who would navigate? The screenplay was written by N. Richard Nash, author of The Rainmaker, from an “original” story by Philip Yordan, Sidney Harmon and Hollister Noble — I say “original” in quotes because the movie is actually a quite obvious reworking of The Maltese Falcon: the lone-wolf operator whose partner is killed early on (and as with the Huston/Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon this means we lose one of the most interesting actors in the piece too soon!), the heavy-set criminal mastermind, his runt-like assistant, the morally ambiguous woman who seems to be playing both the hero and the villain against each other (though at least Messrs. Yordan, Harmon, Noble and Nash spared us the gimmick of having her be the hero’s partner’s murderer, which was a jolting surprise when Dashiell Hammett thought it up but has long since become one of the most irritating mystery clichés — when I saw The Black Dahlia I asked for at least a 10-year moratorium on mystery plots in which the hero’s girlfriend turns out to be the murderer) and even the priceless relic all the fuss is about: the “diamonds” turn out actually to be a diamond-encrusted cross, hidden under a plaster coating, stolen from the church in a Philippine village, and Mason’s native assistant/cabin boy Manuelo (Robert Cabal) wants him to turn it back to the church rather than keep it and make millions off it. Indeed, the fact that the relic turns out to be genuinely valuable was a surprise to me because the film was tracking The Maltese Falcon so closely I expected it to turn out to be a fake.

The best aspect of this film is Robert Burks’ cinematography — the director is Gordon Douglas, an efficient hack, and I suspect some of the off-beat camera setups and overall chiaroscuro atmosphere are Burks’ doing (reflecting the lessons he’d learned shooting Strangers on a Train for Alfred Hitchcock, maybe?) — and the next-best aspect is Ruth Roman’s performance, which though closer to Lauren Bacall than Mary Astor is in the tradition of the noir heroine, decent in the end but certainly believable as someone who could go either way (the writing committee gives her two scenes in rapid succession in which it looks like she’s selling Mason out to Benedict, and then vice versa), and her success at both the moral ambiguity of a noir leading woman and the wisecracking authority of Bacall’s roles in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep were a real surprise given her pretty staid performance in Strangers On a Train (which, as good as it is, would be even better with Grace Kelly in the female lead!).