An eerie thing happened last night

I decided to watch The Wreck of the Mary Deare, a 1959 film I’d never seen but based on a book I’d possibly read by Hammond Innes, a British writer whose primary genre was mysterious adventure-thrillers. And I love mysterious adventure-thrillers.

I’d forgotten about Innes until I saw his name on the screen, but I didn’t forget how much pleasure he’d given me back when I read him. And his name was followed by Eric Ambler‘s, who’d written the screenplay. I’ve read most of Ambler.

With the opening credits offering this sterling imprimatur, I settled into my chair confident I was in for an enthralling evening, even if one of the leading roles was played by Charlton Heston. (The other lead, Heston’s antagonist, was Gary Cooper.)

The movie begins as a small, fishing-type boat, plying the English Channel on a stormy night, sees an immense black shape in front of it, a large cargo ship without lights. As the ship bears down on the boat, the crew, led by Heston, shines a beam on the cargo ship and lights its name: The Mary Deare.

Heston and his small crew are salvagers. Despite the growing ferocity of the storm, Heston decides to climb onto the apparently abandoned Mary Deare to see if if the hold contains salvage of some value to them.

He hauls himself up a rope onto the Mary Deare and begins to explore.

It seems empty. He finds an oil lamp and lights it.

Slowly, I began to realize I was in what seemed to be surround-sound: the Channel storm was louder, thunder boomed, lightning flashed.

I’m a terrific film audience. Almost immediately I lose myself and my reality totally, so it took a few seconds before I realized the biggest storm noises were outside my actual window. I got up to pull the window down — in bad storms, the rain spits onto my window sill.

As I did that, and as Heston picked up the lantern to take it around the ship, I began to smell gas, or oil. What? I turned to the TV and said, “No, no — this is definitely over the top!” And I had to do the thing we do in apartments when we smell gas: I checked my stove, I checked the hallway, I went to the window and sniffed. The oily smell was coming not from Heston’s lantern but from West End Avenue, even as the storm rattled the windows and threatened to topple the Mary Deare.

Heston was OK, Gary Cooper was scarily weird and excellent. And a young Richard Harris brought sneers and deviltry to the story.

So really, I would have enjoyed the film without the extra-special FX.




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