This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed Joseph Mankiewicz in this blog, nor is it the first time I’ve mentioned a Mankiewicz/Rex Harrison collaboration. The addition of Gene Tierney as the titular Mrs. Muir (opposite Harrison’s ghost) evens out Harrison’s usual – and often aggravating – bombastics.
Mrs. Muir is an independent widow who relocates with her daughter and maid to a house haunted by the ghost of an cantankerous old sea captain. To pay the bills she and the captain co-author (I kid you not – sounds absurd doesn’t it?) a book on the captain’s life. When a cad with the cad-like name Miles Fairley (George Sanders, of course) enters her life, the captain’s jealousy gets the best of him and he disappears.
I didn’t love The Ghost and Mrs. Muir but not for any real cinematic reasons. Tierney is quite good. Harrison gets annoying but does the trick. Sanders plays his sly character to a T. The script, sometimes dated in its feminine representations, still paints Muir as a pretty autonomous individual capable of making her own choices.
My main problem with the film is that it lacks any real, significant drama. The dramatic moments are, most obviously, Muir and the captain’s attempt to overcome poverty via the novel, and Muir’s attempt at a new relationship with Fairley. Neither of these are particularly intriguing or suspenseful. There’s a nice moment that caps Muir and Fairley’s affair, but Mankiewicz and screenwriter Philip Dunne rely far too heavily on the charms of the Muir/captain banter and the whimsicality of the situation. Every character gets off the hook too easily, and even when Muir doesn’t towards the end of the film, the time compression is such that the drama is left on the cutting room floor (or off the original page, for that matter).
Regardless, I’ll watch anything Mankiewicz touches, and it’s because he’s got an eye for the camera. Look at the scene where Muir first enters the haunted house and is “introduced” to the captain.
The camera starts outside the room framing Muir and the realtor in wide-shot:
In the same shot it dollies in after them as they both approach the door, frame-left:
It continues over Muir’s shoulder and into the room where, courtesy of some dramatic lighting, the captain is introduced:
Mankiewicz cuts to a low-angle of Muir as she looks in. The low angle, as opposed to an eye-level camera, continues the tension from the shot before (who is this man and why is he standing in the dark in the house?):
A cut in reveals the true identity. A painting. Cut ins in this sense are interesting. Why is Muir suddenly able to “look closer” the way we are able to? Do her eyes have zoom lenses in them? Obviously not. Here, it’s a subtle representation of eyes adjusting to the dark:
And here comes the beginning of Mankiewicz’s virtuosity. Muir and the realtor enter in a wide-shot. The camera pans and dollies with them as they move left:
The realtor opens the windows, revealing the painting in all its glory. Notice how the framing, and for this moment Muir’s body position, gives the captain preferential treatment over the realtor. It’s a small foreshadow that he is more important here, and in the future of the film:
Now Mankiewicz plays with some off-screen space. Muir walks to the windows (great blocking – give your actors something believable to do or somewhere believable to go) and the realtor follows. The camera dollies after them:
Muir turns back to face the realtor, and the painting, off-screen:
She turns her back to the painting as the realtor joins her at the window and the camera dollies further in:
She starts to walk away but comes to a stop in the foreground, facing the camera and with the painting in the corner of her eye, as she hears a voice off-screen:
She turns back to ask the realtor if he spoke (and again, away from the painting):
And the two of them hurry out as the camera moves with them, coming back full circle. That’s one long shot:
This last shot – comprising all 11 stills above – beautifully demonstrates the relationship between the captain and Mrs. Muir before it even happens. Muir is drawn to the painting and then turns her back to it. She’s drawn to it again and then turns her back on it. She finally leaves…but not without stopping to give it one final gaze. This is a full-on microcosm of the structure of the screenplay to follow, all wrapped up into one tidy shot.