Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965) is a rather engrossing, if inconsistent chef-d'oeuvre; arguably, the last truly great character-driven ensemble picture made in America. The film is, of course, a literal depiction of that time-honored cliché; the phrase ‘ship of fools’ allegorical for a vessel populated by the self-absorbed, socially inept and sexually confused and/or frustrated; each unable to recognize the misguidedness and witlessness in their own frivolous pursuits. More directly, the movie derives from Katherine Anne Porter’s novel, brilliantly reconstituted by screenwriter Abby Mann into a socially conscious moral critique. Its’ crux remains the deconstruction of anti-Semitism aboard a luxury liner bound from Vera Cruz to Bremerhaven, circa 1933. Michael Dunn’s Glocken, the midget, sets up this premise by addressing the audience in the first person immediately following the main titles: no one is exempt from the egregiousness of their own opinions and ego. Mankind is flawed, troubled, mistrusting and ultimately plagued in its own self-destructive psychological makeup. We are creatures attempting to attain perfection without being perfect from within. This flawed logic ultimately leads to our own detriment and unhappiness. Glocken’s admittance to being just one of the fools, and his suggestion, that we may even find ‘ourselves’ aboard is, of course, quite sobering.
In many ways, a cruise ship is the ideal place to stage such a melodrama; the confined space leading to all sorts of forced interactions and conflict between crew and passengers from all walks of life. Mann’s screenplay is, at times, rather heavy-handed in its anti-Semitic diatribes mostly spewed by the pompous Herr Rieber (José Ferrer), travelling with a much younger – and frankly, mindless - ‘companion’, Lizzi (Christiane Schmidtmer). Rieber has no compunction about making his negative stereotypes known; contaminating virtually all conversation taking place around the Captain’s table. Mann’s own commentary, that Nazism arose from a general willingness by the supposedly ‘good people’ to quietly ignore and/or look the other way while tolerating Hitler’s heinous doctrines, is rather poignantly expressed in the movie through the character of Herr Freytag (Alf Kjellin); first seated at the Captain’s table until Rieber inadvertently learns from American socialite Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh) that Freytag is married to a Jewish woman back in Germany.
Freytag’s exile from their enclave simply because of this association, and at Rieber’s request, is made even more repugnant by the shocking disquiet shared amongst the other passengers who refuse to come to Freytag’s aid. Freytag defiantly defends his wife’s reputation to these unworthy few, telling Rieber and the rest of his silent compatriots that she has never spoken a disparaging word about anyone in her life and that they are not fit to share the same space together. However, much later we learn Freytag’s proud defense and admonishment of the group derives from a very heavy heart. In fact, Freytag is as guilty as the rest, having sacrificed his marriage to save face within his own profession back home.
Meanwhile, Rieber is made to share a cabin with Lowenthal (Heinz Rühmann), the rather tragically naïve Jew looking forward to returning to the Fatherland, still unable to fathom the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. At one point, Glocken calls out Lowenthal for his ostrich-like inability to reconcile, or at least comprehend, these shifting sentiments with ominous implications, to which Lowenthal merely chuckles, making the rather prophetic statement; ‘There are a million Jews living in Germany. They can’t get rid of all of us.’ Abby Mann’s screenplay exquisitely counterbalances this moment of gullibility with another, more clear-eyed confrontation between Lowenthal and Rieber in their shared stateroom. Here, Rieber – cordial, but as opinionated as ever – asks Lowenthal to deny that the Jews are responsible for all of the present-day afflictions plaguing a unified Germany. Lowenthal ponders for a moment, answering that he cannot deny it, before going on to also blame the bicycle riders. When, perplexed by his agreeable reply, Rieber asks Lowenthal “Why the bicycle riders?”, Lowenthal calmly and logically reasons, “Why the Jews?”
Classicism is also at play within our story, the ship’s steerage comprised of impoverished migrants from Mexico, including a gifted woodcarver (David Renard) who ultimately drowns for attempting to save a dog from first class who has been thrown overboard by a pair of third class children. Two of the ship’s more compassionate proletariats effortlessly move between these irreconcilable worlds. First is the physically and emotionally scarred physician, Dr. Schumann (Oskar Werner) – who sees self-inflicted human suffrage, either out of love, self-pity or abject hatred as symptomatic of mankind’s slow, sad demise as a race.
The second is first class passenger, David (George Segal), who spends a good deal of his time doing sketches of the migrants, always depicted in his drawings from the skewed and highly romanticized perspective as something of the noble savage. Of these two men, only Schumann sees social injustices clearly – albeit, with a cynical frustration that threatens to consume him into abject despair. But Schumann is given an extraordinary, if momentary, reprieve from his own psychological malaise and made to re-examine his generalized contempt for life, seen through the sad-eyed (though arguably never distraught) frankness of La Condesa (Simone Signoret); an ex-patriot being sent back to Germany to serve out a prison sentence.
David’s paramour is Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley); a hapless, dewy-eyed dreamer, more in love with being ‘in love’ than she is able to see David for what he truly is; an impassioned crusader for the common man. David’s derision of Jenny’s rather lax social conscience puts a strain on their relationship. In point of fact, Jenny doesn’t even know what it means to have a social conscience. After Jenny and David split she miserably attempting to prove herself by slumming with Pepe (José Greco); the earthy Flamenco dancer whose entourage of Spanish beauties, including Amparo (BarBara Luna) do double duty as prostitutes for patrons wealthy enough to afford them. This very public seduction witnessed by David is fraught with sexual ambiguity. For David – embarrassed either ‘with’ or ‘for’ Jenny – attempts a chivalrous intervention, promptly subdued by Pepe, who callously enjoys knocking the wind out of him.
Themes of sexual friction and frustration run their course in other ways throughout the story. As example, we find Dr. Schumann bitterly unable to rid himself of his own emotional baggage – caught in a loveless marriage - presumably to wait for La Condesa to serve out her prison term so that they can rekindle their purer affections at a later time and place. There’s also youthfully flawed pent-up vexations in Johann (Charles de Vries); a boy desperate to be a man, but saddled with responsibilities as a caregiver to the miserly, Graf (John Wengraf), the latter refusing to provide his young charge with any funds of his own; perhaps wisely assessing they will be squandered on alcohol and prostitutes. Here again, Abby Mann’s screenplay superbly delineates the parallels between affluence and self-respect, the lack of both leading to a violent confrontation in which Johann almost strangles Graf before being told where the money is being kept.
We have yet to discuss the fractured ‘relationship’ between middle-aged coquette, Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh) and bigoted American industrialist, Tenny (Lee Marvin); a most curious détente, considering Leigh and Marvin are top billed as the movie’s ‘stars’ but, in fact, are given precious little to do except act as influences on some of the other passengers. This is particularly true of Leigh’s Mary, who motivates Jenny to reexamine her affair with David using a more discerning resolve. Mary is a very cool customer: shrewd and mostly critical of men in general. Tenny, on the other hand, is a rover – his racist views quietly ignored and/or tolerated by everyone except Mary who, after Tenny questions why anyone would hate someone because their Jewish, rather caustically suggests he has been too busy lynching blacks to pay the Jews any mind. Later, through a set-up instigated by Amparo, Tenny finds himself in Mary’s cabin, rife with the prospect of some grand seduction suddenly turned asunder when Mary instead physically assaults him almost to the point of unconsciousness.
Ship of Fools was Vivien Leigh’s final movie, the actress succumbing to her lifelong reoccurring bouts of tuberculosis a scant two years later. In retrospect, Leigh’s performance arguably carries more dramatic ballast; particularly in the shadow of her own flawed liaison with Laurence Olivier, and even more astutely denied her womanly defense of past glamor as one of cinema’s undisputed and peerlessly porcelain beauties, now inevitably elapsed. As pure performance Leigh really doesn’t delve into the bowels of her harsh harridan; remaining curtly aloof. But she does afford us two explosive episodes that reveal the nadirs of Mary Treadwell’s life-long rage: the aforementioned assault on Tenny’s person, and a rather gregarious – and altogether more rambunctious release of pure energy as Mary, sufficiently inebriated, cuts loose in an isolated ship’s corridor to perform a Charleston. It’s proof of a kind, at least to Mary, that she is still defiantly youthful, a shackle preventing her appreciation – and acceptance – of being middle-age.
Ship of Fools is rather superbly wrought melodrama because its ensemble delivers uniformly solid performances. And yet there is a faint whiff of embalming fluid emanating from the peripheries of the screen; the stars somehow lacking resonance. If the film has an emotional center, it remains Oskar Werner and Simone Signoret’s tragic love affair; maintained with delicately understated kindness. More than any of the other misfits aboard this ship of fools, Dr. Schumann and La Condesa are the mismatched pair who consistently attain and maintain their longevity through understanding: panged, pitiable glances and crooked half smiles conveying a sort of world-weary regret intuitively connecting with the audience. When Signoret’s La Condesa arrives at Schumann’s cabin, encouraging him to change into his pajamas, the scene is set for some grand seduction. Instead, she coddles with almost maternal affection, before tucking him into bed and quoting a rather racy passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, excised entirely from memory as she tenderly caresses one of Schumann’s medical books between her fingers.
Ship of Fools doesn’t hold up quite so well upon further scrutiny and that’s a shame. But it still has lessons to teach and universal truths to tell and these continue to make it required viewing for the post-postmodern generation. The same can be said for Robert Rossen’s directorial swan song Lilith (1964) – a deft and occasionally intense drama about an utterly tragic and seriously flawed lust between a schizophrenic (played to perfection by Jean Seberg) and her rather ineffectual lover/occupational therapist (less so, as performed by the laconic Warren Beatty). Lilith is based on the novel by J.R. Salamanca; the book’s taboos extending into Rossen and Robert Allen Arthur’s screenplay with more than a hint of moral ambiguity, nods to lesbianism and the rather liberal usage of the word ‘bitch’ effectively shattering the straight-jacked constraints of the Production Code of Ethics.
Lilith comes at the tail end of the public’s fascination with movies dealing with the diseases of the mind; a trend first begun in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and extending throughout the 1950’s with The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959). At some level, all of the aforementioned have been more fascinated by the cure than the cause of mental defects, ultimately revealing a clear-cut path or return to normalcy. Lilith has no such altruistic pursuits. In fact, its plot is a spiral from the relative fringes into the mouth of madness. At its crux, Lilith is about two fractured souls intermingling; crossing the line in doctor/patient privilege in destructive and very self-destructive ways, and, arriving at the parallel realization that at any moment lucidity is being tested, perverted, reshaped and informed by the crossroads of time and experiences gained – good, bad or indifferent.
Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty) is a returning Korean War vet caught in the vacuum of a life that really did not add up to much before he became a soldier. He’s lost in every possible way a human being can be. A rough childhood was the perfect segue into a very disgruntled adulthood. Now his former lover, Laura (Jessica Walter) has married Norman (Gene Hackman) a bumpkin blowhard. His friends have all moved on and Vincent’s social life is nonexistent. Unable to find solace in alcohol, war movies, or even the words of his rather ineffectual grandmother (Lucy Smith), Vincent takes a job at a nearby country asylum for the wealthy. Hired by Dr. Bea Brice (Kim Hunter), Vincent’s progress as an occupational therapist is closely monitored by Dr. Lavrier (James Patterson) who begins to suspect that perhaps his employee is en route to becoming a patient.
Vincent’s outlook gets complicated when he is put in charge of Lilith Arthur (Jean Seberg), a severely disturbed schizophrenic with a perverse sexual appetite for prepubescent boys. Oddly enough, Lilith becomes the object of attraction for fellow patients, Stephen Evshevsky (Peter Fonda) and Mrs. Yvonne Meaghan (Anne Meacham) – the latter infrequently indulging a lesbian relationship with Lilith at a nearby abandoned barn. Stephen seems oblivious to this fact, and also to the steadily evolving ‘friendship’ between Lilith and Vincent; something Dr. Brice has already begun to suspect. Nevertheless, this ‘friendship’ has been good for Lilith who is steadily showing signs of improvement. Once a recluse, Lilith now goes on regular outings with Vincent. He takes her to a local county fair, winning a doll at a jousting competition. But Vincent has also begun to grow jealous and possessive of Lilith; even when she exhibits seemingly harmless acts of kindness towards a boy playing in the street.
When Vincent discovers Lilith and Yvonne post coital in the barn he strikes Lilith with the back of his hand, igniting a sexual passion that begins to unravel his own sanity. In the meantime, Stephen has begun to trust the use of his hands. They used to shake. But now he has mastered the art of hand-carving; his affections for Lilith manifested in a handcrafted new paint box for her art supplies. After a particularly trying session with Lilith, Vincent goes to see Laura and is introduced to Norman. It’s an awkward first meet. Norman is uncouth, rather demonstrative and controlling towards Laura, and frankly, unable to keep a secret. He tells Vincent Laura once told him Vincent’s mother was crazy. Laura is mortified by her husband’s behavior. After Norman departs for a political meeting, Laura reminds Vincent how she once made him a promise he could not make love to her until she was a married woman. “Well…” Laura adds, “I’m married now.” But Vincent’s inability to react - either favorably or not - to this overt invitation leaves Laura feeling utterly humiliated.
Returning to the asylum, Lilith shows Vincent the paint box Stephen made for her. But the mood between the two has shifted. Where once Lilith regarded Vincent as her brave adventurer she now recognizes nothing in him left to seduce. Their relationship – if, in fact, one ever existed – is at an end. Vincent leaves Lilith’s room in a huff, taking her paint box with him. But only a few yards from Lilith’s room Vincent is confronted by Stephen who gushes about being ‘almost cured’ while inquiring whether Lilith has shown Vincent his paint box. Without explanation, Vincent produced the box stolen from Lilith’s room, the implication being that Lilith has rejected Stephen’s gift and thus his intentions to pursue her romantically.
As a result of this misperceived rejection, Stephen is later discovered dead of an apparent self-inflicted stab wound. Stephen’s suicide sets Lilith off. She destroys her room and all of the art work in it. Placed in a padded cell in solitary, Lilith is presumably lost to Vincent for all time. He spends the next several days aimlessly wandering the asylum grounds in the rain, at last approaching doctors Brice and Lavrier – who have been quietly observing him at a distance – his stare utterly void of emotion, his mind overwrought with the implication he is indirectly responsible for Stephen’s death. The film ends with Vincent mumbling, “Help me.”
Lilith is a rather morbid tale of obsessive love destroying the one thing it seeks to preserve. The film is immeasurably blessed by Eugen Schüfftan’s simply stunning B&W cinematography and Jean Seberg’s towering central performance as the conflicted and very complicated title character. It is difficult, if not entirely impossible, to imagine any other actress of her generation able to convey so much with minimal facial expressions, dialogue and body language. Seberg manages to catch and translate all of Lilith’s wicked contradictions; a young woman afflicted with too many mental traumas for any one person to manage – but especially someone as much in love with her as Vincent Bruce.
Herein lays two great tragedies for the movie to overcome: first, Warren Beatty’s Vincent never rises above a very wooden presence, and second, Peter Fonda’s Stephen overplays his hand. The male element in Lilith really is wanting for something intelligent to say. Vincent struggles so much and badly to express even the most basic thoughts and emotions it is a wonder how Dr. Brice could have recommended him for the job of occupational therapist in the first place. In fact, as the Rossen/Arthur screenplay evolves, we get the distinct sensation that it is Vincent’s behaviors, rather than Lilith’s, being put under Brice and Lavrier’s psychoanalytic microscope. By contrast, Peter Fonda’s Stephen suffers from a sort of verbal diarrhea; expressing too much to the wrong people. His confidences are so obviously misplaced we almost forget Stephen isn’t a doddering idiot, per say, but a patient of significant intelligence whose only shortcoming is that he is entirely unable to find strength or security within his own self.
Mill Creek Entertainment continues to issue catalogue titles gleaned other studios as 2 movies on a single Blu-ray disc. First off, I am not a proponent of this sort of third party licensing or condensing two 2 hr. plus movies onto one disc. Both Ship of Fools and Lilith were made for Columbia Pictures. They are released herein in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Given Grover Crisp’s impeccable mastering efforts put forth on Sony’s extensive catalogue (also through Twilight Time) to release in hi-def under their own label, I really don’t understand how either of these titles found their way to Mill Creek – unless, of course, they’re bootlegs, which – I suspect – they’re not.
Be that as it may, neither Ship of Fools nor Lilith has been given the badly needed substantial 1080p upgrade. Both B&W transfers exhibit a very dated quality. Contrast is solid. Tonality in general is quite good. There are a few instances where the image looks just a tad soft. But these moments are brief and not too distracting. Film grain is exceptionally heavy at times and occasionally even looks just a tad digitized. Age-related artifacts are also in abundance throughout each transfer. Come on, people! If it’s good enough to go to Blu it ought to be good enough to make it to 1080p looking pristine! The audio for each film is 2.0 mono; but Lilith’s soundtrack is problematic with dialogue occasionally inaudible and music and effects generally dominating. There are NO extras (not even a trailer) for either title. Bottom line: Ship of Fools and Lilith are two rather fascinating experiments worthy of another spin on Blu-ray. Neither is a masterpiece or presented for optimal viewing on this disc, but each will entertain you to varying degrees. Enjoy.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)