At the age of eleven or so I was first introduced to this film and instantly fell in love with its story. At that age, to me it was merely a classic tale about a ghostly seaman. Yet over the years I have watched it again and again with such fondness, that only now as I humbly grow older, do I fully appreciate all of its imagery, hidden layers, and wisdom.
Lucy, a young widow, embraces her independence by moving to a beautiful and remote cottage overlooking the ocean. Accompanied only by her daughter and loyal maid, she escapes the restrictive environment of her mother in law's house intent on leading her own life free of society in the 1900's. The house however, brings other dilemmas, long left empty since the apparent suicide of its former sea captain owner. Determined not to be frightened out of a home she has started to love, she confronts the strange presence she feels watching her, only to be shocked by an apparition of the ghostly former resident. Captain Gregg, the epitome of manly Byronic rogue, curses and blusters into an agreement to let her stay, and the strange relationship begins as he starts to admire her proud, brave attitude.
An unfortunate financial turn sees Lucy in a position that sees her loosing the house unless fortune comes her way. In a humorous display of courage she, with the seaman's support, casts out her overwhelming in-laws come to take her back, with a sheer determination to thrive regardless. The captain, proud of his Flying Dutchman style life of adventure, recruits her to write the unvarnished tale of his manly escapades in a bid to make money. The growing friendship between the two highlights Lucy's strength of character, and the sailor's once hidden sensitive and emotional nature.
She is his “Lucia”, for it is a name fit for the amazon like woman she has become, and he protects her with a touching and very real sense of love. The publisher Lucy seeks out is both astounded and delighted at the oddly crude novel such a gentle woman has presented him with, and while at his office she meets a sauntering and transparent writer who begins to court her with his persistent and obvious intentions.
Well off, and embarking on a courtship with a real man, Lucy begins to forget Captain Gregg after one night he says goodbye in hope she will soon have the kind of life he knows he cannot share with her, and a relationship he feels inadequate to provide himself. Later, sadly, and written in an unglamorous and careful way, the cad she believed she was to marry turns out to already have a family, and there is a very bleak scene that sees an unspoken understanding between the two wronged women.
The film passes across many more years showing a gradual and honest depiction of time passing as Lucy grows old- more or less isolated yet strangely content. Her life is full yet empty at the same time. Her daughter is engaged and leading her own life, and her maid is her sole companion. At the end we see her comfortable as she dies in her sleep, only to be greeted by the Captain once more with a love that transcends her life, a life of little regret.
There are two ways to view this tale. In a logical world absent of whimsy, Lucy is the lonely widow leading a life of escapism. Creating the fictional character of the sea captain who is the kind of man she wishes she could know after a loveless marriage. He is also her voice of reason, encouraging her wish of independence in a manner that satisfies her secret rebellious attitude. He fades as she seeks real companionship, and after that she is mature enough to realise that life should not be full of wishes and wants, thus she contents herself with appreciating what she has. Contrary to that, of course we can appreciate the more magical theory that the sea captain really does exist, and enjoy the little hints like the maid and the daughter remembering little accents of his presence towards the end of the film too.
In it's essence, you could say that it has elements of an old Edgar Allan Poe story, what with the themes of loneliness, obsession with love, and ill fated escapades with the outside world. Although I have to say that the underlying feelings of repressed independence and stunted opportunities, are of a much more normal nature than Poe's need to involve the supernatural in all elements of the character's struggle.
Gene Tierney is elegant and refined as the proud Lucy, and despite her fame from the earlier role of 'Laura' in the murder mystery film of the same name, I feel this is her finest performance of her career. With dialogue presented to her that could so easily be conveyed with melodrama and unnecessary dramatics by a lesser actress, she takes scenes such as that when she is middle aged and reflecting, with a quiet dignity and wise air about her. Rex Harrison is ideally placed as the hardened salty Captain, using his gruff, manly voice to actively convey the tone of each scene he is in, whereas George Saunders uses that 'vocal sneer' he is so famed for, for his part as the dishonourable Beau Brummell like love interest. What also is of interest, is that a very young Natalie Wood actually plays Lucy's young daughter- A small role, but effective none the less.
The sets are beautiful, with the seaman's cottage full of character and telescopes pointing out to sea, while the atmosphere created by Oscar winning cinematographer Charles Lang is involving and voyeuristic. Perhaps more noticeably is the outstanding score from the acclaimed Bernard Herrmann, later famous for his music in Hitchcock films such as Vertigo. In other more subtle settings the score would be outlandish, but here with the stunning imagery, it is theatrically sumptuous. Creating the scene and its tone, rather than contrasting with it.
I implore you to watch this film, as the DVD can now be found at most of the larger entertainment retail shops. Share this classic piece of film with others for a truly different viewing experience to modern Hollywood blockbusters
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
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