A near-sublime early directorial work by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Ghost and Mrs Muir not only comments on the matters important to itself, but also jumps eras to ridicule a lot of today's notions of entertaining cinema. It resembles, in many ways, a modern “high concept” romantic comedy, in that it takes an unlikely gimmick, accounting as it does the banter and butting of heads between a woman and a spirit, and marries it to a slow-burning love affair. Except, of course, that it’s both more substantial as a meditation on humanity and transience, and infinitely less crass, than any modern equialent from
could be allowed to be. Mankiewicz’s fourth film, and his first great one, is one of many films of the mid and late ‘40s (Here Comes Mr Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, A Matter of Life and Death, Portrait of Jennie) that takes, for obvious reasons, the longing for an afterlife and the sustenance of the spirit very seriously, but with a flavour that rejects overt religiosity in favour of delicate spiritual links between the living and the dead. Working with a screenplay by Philip Dunne from a novel by R. A. Dick, Mankiewicz expands beyond the conventional to encompass a delicate and contemplative film that, like many of his works, is about the tug of war between strong-willed women and rugged but deceptively flexible, romantic men, played out with the sharpest of wit and a fair level of true wisdom. Hollywood
Mrs Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is a young widow with a small daughter, Ann (Natalie Wood), who, tired of being patronised by her deceased husband’s clinging mother (Isobel Elsom) and controlling sister (Victoria Horne), determines to establish herself in a seaside home and live on her husband’s investments. The cottage she sets her heart on has a peculiarity that has rendered thus far a property that its agent Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote) can’t rent out, and which soon enough makes itself apparent to Lucy too: it’s haunted by the ghost of its builder, former sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), whom it’s popularly believed still lurks around his home because of his death by suicide. When Lucy stands up to the spectre harassing her nights, however, he protests that his death was accidental, and his real reason for maintaining a spectral presence is because he wanted the house to become a home for retired seafarers like himself. He and Lucy strike up a bargain that sees her, Ann, and her lippy servant Martha (Edna Best) settling in nicely. But when Lucy’s portfolio turns worthless, she is faced with bankruptcy. Never fear, Gregg tells her, he’ll dictate to her the story of his life, titled “Blood and Swash”, to serve as a rip-roaring pulp money-spinner and save Lucy and household from having to move back in with her in-laws. Gregg’s gift to Lucy, the financial independence that his life story gives her, had freed her to pursue happiness ironically with less ethereal gentlemen, and she finds her choice in Miles Fairley, embodied inevitably by George Sanders, in a more realistic and empathetic variation of the sorts of glib-tongued rotters Sanders usually had to play. Lucy gives in to Fairley’s pursuit of her, but soon enough discovers his affectation of the arch literary playboy conceals only an arch literary playboy, whose wife (Anna Lee) lets slip her knowledge of many such situations with exasperation and apologia. But Gregg has already given Lucy up in spite of his evident ardour for her, disappearing after convincing her that he was indeed a mere device of her mind, a notion not dispelled until years later Lucy learns from the grown Ann (Vanessa Brown) that she too used to have conversations with the gruff sailor’s shade.
If The Ghost and Mrs Muir was made these days, Gregg would prove to be come kind of imaginary symbol of Lucy’s inner creative process, aspirations, and anarchic streak, a la Swimming Pool or Fight Club. Such would have made the satire on Lucy’s attempts to gain entry into the publishing world, facing the dubiety of a literary establishment that expect only clichés and boredom from women writers, sharper and more clearly consistent with the theme of her attempts to emancipate herself from conventions and repressions. That this aspect of the film has a dash of knowing humour to it in this regard isn’t so surprising considering that R. A. Dick was the pseudonym of one Josephine Leslie. And yet the film’s resonances are subtler and spread far more broadly for the refusal on Mankiewicz’s part to demystify it. Gregg stands as ethereal mediator between past and future, grit and vision, with Lucy as the person of now, whose attempt to live up to her potential and hopes after a foolish and doomed teenage romance and youthful marriage to an indifferent architect. The film possesses less a traditional narrative than a series of genuinely elegiac evocations, of the romantic yet grubby field of work Gregg dedicated his life to, in his rapturous soliloquy about his desire to give a final shelter to the men who risk their lives on the sea for the sake of trade, and of passing time and sometimes cruel experience as being a necessary aspect of human life. The little joys and betrayals that dog Lucy in her process of growth elucidate this notion. That Gregg stands in for a version of masculinity both idealised and earthy – he makes no apologies for his life, which seems, it’s constantly hinted, full of pleasures and shocks of the flesh – appals and enthrals Lucy to equal degree.
The Ghost and Mrs Muir could have been parlayed in a fashion that would have rendered it smug and sticky, like many such gimmicky gender-commentary rom-coms became in the ‘50s. And yet Mankiewicz’s touch, the excellence of Harrison and Tierney, and the way the satire and romanticism entwine, ensures that fate never descends. Definite auteurist underpinnings outlay themselves especially in the use of Harrison and Sanders as disparate types, for Mankiewicz would later use Harrison again in another such diptych of romantic choices for a rebellious femme in Cleopatra, and Sanders’ casting obviously prefigures his part as Addison De Witt in All About Eve, which would extend and mutate the already-present self-reflexive criticality of artistic endeavour and anxiety in this film. Tierney, often written off as a workaday starlet of the era, is nonetheless as splendid as Muir as she was in a diametrically opposite role, the valkyrie murderess of Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Mankiewicz was often later written off as a director obsessed with the verbal, and certainly The Ghost and Mrs Muir’s focus is on the elegance of the well-spoke word, with a lot of scenes exemplified by set-bound, complex dialogue pas-de-deux. And yet the film is also charged with a supply cinematic beauty: not quite as striking as the edge of neo-realism mixed with noir that he brought to House of Strangers (1949), Mankiewicz’s complete neglect of any artifice in presenting his apparition, except for a moment in which Gregg fades away in a lovely literalised vision of his temporal abandonment of Lucy, and his richly chiarascuro monochrome palette, nonetheless enrich this film's specific mystique.
Mankiewicz’s intimate staging is essayed through Charles Lang’s luminescent photography, bathing even the most humdrum and talky scenes with an edge of spiritual expansiveness, the rich lighting casting a burnishing glaze across the detailed sets. Some moments, like when an aged Lucy stands silhouetted against her curtained windows, the sources of light and figurations rendered ghostly, or when Gregg, farewelling Lucy in leaving her to her life, leans in close enough to be illicit if he wasn’t a shade, vibrate with a sense of the permeable boundaries of life, death, physique and memory. Different, yet linked, boundaries are prodded and probed in the byplay between widowed woman and bodiless man, circling around the edges of impropriety in life (Gregg casually insists that he and Lucy “share” his bedroom) and language (Lucy’s disquiet, which shades of course into secret glee, in typing out Gregg’s salty language) – it’s all vibrantly sexy. There’s an also interesting prefiguration in the way Mankiewicz introduces Gregg, revealed in a pool of shadow behind Lucy when she lights a lantern in her kitchen, with the way John Carpenter used similarly enveloping shadows to secrete his rather less delicate lurking emanation, in Halloween (1978). An old sea salt carves Ann’s name into the post of a beach groyne, and the process of that groyne being whittled down to broken kindling as Lucy journeys into a lonely, yet hardly pathetic, old age in a semi-contemporary world, provides a felicitous device that works in several fashions: as narrative yardstick and leitmotif, and emblem of physical decay and passage of time. Bernard Herrmann's music score is one of his least characteristic, and one of his finest. Whilst the humour and the heartstring-tugging are of a high calibre, the unique lustre of the film is in the way it carefully lays out the apposite detail and incongruent character relationships in such a way that always feels organic. It runs and ebbs as naturally as the sea itself, and the impact of the finale is truly earned.