Sunday, May 25, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Sea Chase (1955)

THE SEA CHASE (1955) is an oddball mid-'50s John Wayne film, with Wayne playing the German captain of a tramp steamer at the start of World War II.

Captain Karl Ehrlich (Wayne) and his ship, the Ergenstrasse, slip out of Sydney Harbor just after the declaration of war between Germany and Britain. Ehrlich has quite a quandary: he's an unpopular man in Germany due to his anti-Hitler stance, but if he's caught by the British he'll be interned for the duration.

Also aboard the ship is Elsa Keller (Lana Turner), a beautiful Nazi intelligence agent who likewise needs to urgently leave Sydney. Before long sparks are flying between Karl and Elsa.

The British ship Rockingham gives chase, with Ehrlich's friend Jeff Napier (David Farrar) aboard. Ehrlich outmaneuvers the British at every turn.

Unfortunately, when the crewmen find provisions at an island shipwreck station, slimy ship's officer Kirchner (Lyle Bettger) shoots the British men at the station in cold blood. The discovery of the bodies makes the British even more determined to catch the Ergenstrasse. Ehrlich only belatedly learns what Kirchner has done and intends to return to Germany and have Kirchner court-martialed.

Fate, however, has another plan in mind and one dark night on the North Sea the British catch up...

It took a little while for me to wrap my head around the notion of the Duke as a German, but okay then. The movie's real problem is that there's not enough "chase" and way too much talk. The film moves at a snail's pace, building to a rather inexplicable ending.

Director John Farrow made some excellent suspense films, from FIVE CAME BACK (1939) to THE BIG CLOCK (1948), but he's never able to ratchet up the excitement in THE SEA CHASE. Some of the problem is the meandering script by James Warner Bellah and John Twist, based on a book by Andrew Geer.

Things perk up briefly when there's a shark attack, but when one of the most interesting things in the film is an ingenious plan to lure rats off the ship, you've got trouble. As a fan of both Wayne and Turner, I was really hoping for more from this film, but it never goes much of anywhere, more's the pity.

On the up side, the film has a great crisp look, filmed by regular Wayne cinematographer William Clothier in WarnerColor and CinemaScope. Lana Turner and the Hawaiian locations are lovely.

It's also enjoyable seeing frequent Wayne costars including Paul Fix, John Qualen, and James Arness, as well as Maureen O'Hara's brother James, who also appeared in THE QUIET MAN (1952). The cast also includes Tab Hunter, Claude Akins, Robert Doucette, Alan Hale Jr., Peter Whitney, and Lowell Gilmore.

A side question: did Lyle Bettger ever play anything but creeps?!

The music was composed by Roy Webb, who had scored yesterday's movie, ALICE ADAMS (1935), two decades previously.

THE SEA CHASE has had multiple DVD releases, as a single-title release in the John Wayne Collection and as a double feature with BLOOD ALLEY (1955). It was also released on VHS.

This movie is also shown on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer can be seen at IMDb.

July 2017 Update: THE SEA CHASE has been released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of The Sea Chase. The voice-over by David Farrar lends a lot of atmosphere and the supporting cast are very good.
Amazingly, you just accept the American cast are playing Germans,including John Wayne.
A good question by the way - Dan Duryea was always a convincing villain. Can't think if he ever played a good guy.

11:37 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Vienna - "THUNDER BAY" has Duryea playing a good guy for Anthony Mann.

I remember the first time I saw "THE SEA CHASE" I could not get my head round the Duke playing a German( a good German albeit). The film is enhanced for me also by the playing of David Farrar. A good actor who could be really good, as in the 1947 Ealing Studios' "FRIEDA" or the superb 1950 film "THE SMALL BACK ROOM", about the bomb disposal boys immediately after WW2. Great film.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you both for sharing your thoughts on this film and David Farrar. He's an actor I don't know well and will be looking out for more of his work. THE SMALL BACK ROOM sounds really interesting -- a favorite British TV series "back in the day" was DANGER UXB.

Vienna, you might have been responding to my question on Lyle Bettger, rather than Duryea? (Who certainly played a lot of villains too!) There's something about Bettger's face which screams "bad guy!" LOL.

Jerry, I haven't seen THUNDER BAY since becoming a Duryea fan and intend to go back and revisit it.

Best wishes,

12:14 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

First, I strongly support Jerry E regarding the superb drama THE SMALL BACK ROOM (Powell and Pressburger), which is David Farrar's finest hour among those of his movies I've seen.

I was going to answer on Lyle Bettger, and coincidentally (re Vienna's post) I was going to mention Dan Duryea in that context. Actors who do something extremely well early on can be easily typed into a niche. That happened to Bettger--look at his first two credits, NO MAN OF HER OWN and UNION STATION. So, yes, one expects to see him as a villain and usually does and he's always good. But though less seen, the independently made THE FIRST LEGION was made around the same time and in this striking, unusual drama directed by Douglas Sirk, Bettger plays a highly sympathetic role of an atheistic doctor caring for a crippled girl (Barbara Rush) and involved with a group of Jesuit priests. He was excellent in this, no less than in his villain roles. As with Rush (who definitely debuted here), Sirk must have liked Bettger and the actor's first film for U-I, where Sirk was under contract, was ALL I DESIRE, so I would venture that Sirk chose him--there are some affinities in the Stanwyck-Bettger relationship with the one from NO MAN OF HER OWN (Bettger plays her illicit lover from the past who tries to start the affair over when she returns to town), but although Bettger's character has a malevolent role to play in the story, he also wins some share of sympathy, for one sees his side.

Basically I'm saying that he made a success of villains but could have done more and had precious little opportunity--probably a few more good guy roles on TV, where he also worked a lot..

By contrast, though Dan Duryea will always be thought of first as a villain, and for similar reasons (it seems audiences loved to see him slap women around in THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET and if you've sewn those movies
you've probably enjoyed seeing him do this too), but in his more sympathetic roles (and there are actually quite a few of these), he's just as memorable, really quite wonderful. In some of these films, Duryea might have his share of human weakness, like alcoholism, yet one invests and pulls for him, and he is so moving in something like CHICAGO CALLING for example. Among the others BLACK ANGEL (I'm aware Laura knows and appreciates both of these I've mentioned), WORLD FOR RANSOM, THE BURGLAR, KATHY O' and these are all leads. There is also the aforementioned THUNDER BAY, as well as FOXFIRE, BATTLE HYMN and, very late for him, a great role in the ensemble of FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, where he is one of the most sympathetic of the group of men and very unlike what one expects from him.

Even if an actor or actress plays nothing but villains (or heroes or heroines too--which may get more boring to hear some of them tell it), to make a successful career acting in movies over a long period of time is not such an easy thing, and so I always appreciate all they contribute. Remember, they are going where the work takes them and that's the best professional thing to do. And in the process, an actor like Bettger can be and is iconic.

That said, Bettger strikes a plaintive if accepting note about his career and being a dad in a quote at IMDb and it's worth looking up.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, thanks for sharing your thoughts on both Lyle Bettger and Dan Duryea. That was a touching Bettger anecdote you referenced at IMDb. When Duryea's son apppeared at the Noir City Film Festival he mentioned that he and his brother had not been allowed to see his father's films, because his parents didn't want the boys confused seeing his father hitting women and the like. It was also mentioned that his father went out of his way to be extra-nice in private life to offset his movie image!

I love seeing Duryea as a good guy, or even an antihero you root for, as in BLACK BART. It's hard to understand the man never rated an Oscar nomination. I appreciate that list of Duryea "good guy" roles as I haven't seen most of them.

Back to Bettger, reading your thoughts on typecasting and becoming iconic caused me to think, in casting someone like Bettger or, say, Robert J. Wilke a type of shorthand is achieved because the audience knows at the outset exactly what kind of character they'll be. And if it turns out to be a time when they're cast against type, that makes for a nice surprise.

Bettger was so memorably creepy in NO MAN OF HER OWN! Thanks for reminding me of ALL I DESIRE which I saw a few years ago. I don't remember him at all in UNION STATION, time to get that one out again!

Best wishes,

4:33 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Laura, I'm rather glad you mention needing to watch "UNION STATION" again as you just might find something about it in my List Of 5 Under-rated Detective/Mysteries which I have just submitted to Rupert Pupkin Speaks.
Hope you will keep a watchful eye for it!

10:34 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, I'm so looking forward to reading your list at Rupert Pupkin, that's fantastic! Thanks for letting us know. And I need to pull out my tape of UNION STATION. :)

In fact, thanks to this conversation I started rewatching THUNDER BAY late last night. My 17th Anthony Mann film this year! I still think it's lesser Mann but so far I'm enjoying it more than I did seven years ago, I think in part because I "get" and like Duryea now and he was a fairly unknown quantity to me then.

Best wishes,

1:27 PM  

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