The Caine Mutiny has one problem: Lose the love story. It was a big yawn. I’m sure it was the typical movie-makers’ ploy of handling any plot dominated by men. They feared that women wouldn’t see it, without a little bit of romance.
The cross-examination scene is rightly famous. What you see is a man disintegrating under pressure. The facade of his reasoning cracks, and Bogie lets you see the chaos and paranoia inside. I watch it, studying his acting, and ask myself the question: “How …how does he do it?”
The disintegration takes place in one take, which is one of the marks of a true actor. A lesser actor would not be able to pull such a feat off, in continuum. The director would need to call “Cut” and give the actor a second to get to the next phase of the disintegration – and then “Cut” again and so on. But a real actor could actually experience the disintegration, could actually let the camera reveal the crack-up.
This is what he does.
At first, he is cool, reasonable, logical. He has all the answers. Five minutes later, we see that that quality of his of “having all the answers” is the very thing that makes him paranoid and insane. But Bogart doesn’t show his hand too early, which is why I think his work is still so revered today, and will continue to be so. He holds back. He doesn’t show all.
It is when Jose Ferrer (the prosecutor) brings up the infamous “missing strawberries” that Queeg’s veneer cracks.
The second the strawberries come up, he puts his hand in his pocket, reaching for his little rolling silver balls. The security blanket. He finds them soothing. Bogart is not doing it as a “bit”, or as a moment of telegraphing, “Here is where I go nuts.” He does it, because it is what the character would do in that moment. He does it because the character needs those ball bearings.
He starts to ramble on about the grave problem of “pilfering food” on a warship, all the while you can hear the “click-click-click-click” of the rolling balls as he talks.
Watch the scene again.
Watch how Bogie pauses – slightly – before and after the words “geometric logic” … It is there where you can see the genius of the man.
Queeg is rambling on and on about the conspiracy of the ship to make him look like a fool, and he defends his behavior, in terms of the missing strawberries, and in the middle of it, he says that he “proved” with “geometric logic” that such-and-such occurred … but there’s a pause before and after. He tries to think of the right words, he is trying to show how smart he is … so he thinks for a teeny second … and then sputters out “geometric logic”. Bogart makes it look as though it is coming from off the top of his head, even though you know that they began as lines on the page. The way he does it is scary.
Here’s the exact wording of the speech:
Ahh, but the strawberries that’s… that’s where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt and with… geometric logic… that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox DID exist, and I’d have produced that key if they hadn’t of pulled the Caine out of action. I, I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officers…
Madness is frightening, in all its forms … and that “geometric logic” is terrifying.
By the end of the speech it is as though Queeg, suddenly, hears himself … and realizes how long he has been speaking … (all with the scary click-click-click of the rolling balls, an accompaniment to the scene) … and, with this … unbelievably touching look on his face – he subsides.
He knows he has just lost.
In that second, a slight shadow, from outside the window, darkens his brow.
A shadow on this man’s brain.