The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1935)

“This story was inspired by the findings of the Attorney-General at Gibraltar, and portrays the grim sea tragedy of the American brig ‘Mary Celeste,’ found drifting and derelict in Mid-Atlantic on December 5, 1972 — one of the strangest and most dramatic chapters in maritime history.”

The Mystery of Mary Celeste is inspired by the strange tale of a real ship called the Mary Celeste, found sailing in the Atlantic ocean in the early 1870s with no crew on board. Though the cargo and personal belongings of the crew were all undisturbed, the ship’s single lifeboat was missing. The final entry in the log book was dated about a week and a half prior to the date the ship was found. No crew member was ever heard from again. Over 140 years later, it is not known exactly what happened to the ship or the souls who once sailed on it.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Hammer takes on one of history’s greatest maritime puzzles with 1935’s The Mystery of Mary Celeste, also known as Phantom Ship or The Mystery of Marie Celeste. Directed by Denison Clift, the film is a slow-starter of questionable accuracy, but is still worthy of a watch.

Once the crew boards the ship and begins sailing, the pace and sense of drama drama pick up. While never fast-paced, the mood-building and audience suspicions improve, at least.

The film suggests a sinister theory of what happened on the ship: a murderous crewman begins plucking off his fellow crew members, one by one. The culprit’s identity is unclear, making everyone a suspect. As the list of surviving crew dwindles, so does the suspect list. A claustrophobic and tense atmosphere lingers as these deaths occur in the middle of the ocean, building with each incident.

Bela Lugosi’s performance is a bright spot of the film, portraying a rough sailor with a drinking habit and no real desire to spend his time sailing on the Mary Celeste. He seems on the brink of a breakdown, worn out by his past struggles and more recent mistakes (the nature of which I, of course, will not spoil).

(Image via iiiib.com)

(Image via iiiib.com)

Originally running at about eighty minutes long, the existing US-release print is just over an hour long. Unfortunately, this means that quite a bit of footage was lost, and it’s not known whether a complete print exists; on the bright side, it’s possible that the film benefits from some of the cuts.

I watched this film on Hulu and the print was highly flawed (extremely muffled dialogue, fairly worn visual quality), but if you can track down a copy online or elsewhere, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste is worth a watch for a dramatic take on a real-life, unsolved disaster-mystery. The score: 2.5/5

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