The Wreck of the Mary Deare (Michael Anderson, 1959) It was intended to be an MGM production for Alfred Hitchcock—he'd liked the best-seller and he'd wanted to work with Gary Cooper since Foreign Correspondent in 1940—but screenwriter Ernest Lehman found it pretty dull with an extended, dry courtroom scene at the end, and Hitchcock decided to "come up with something else"—which turned out to be North By Northwest.
We are all the better for it.
As it is, The Wreck of the Mary Deare is an odd picture with a great mysterious opening and a dry-as-dust finale, try as scripter Eric Ambler and director Anderson might to make a suitable action closer to it. In turbulent seas in the English Channel, a tug, captained by John Sands (Charlton Heston), finds a ghost-freighter marooned and adrift, nearly colliding and destroying his ship. Pulling alongside, Sands grabs a dangling line and laboriously clambers onto the ship. The rusting hulk, the Mary Deare, is without power, a large gash in its side that is slowly flooding the engine room, with no sign of life on-board...at least initially.
One man has remained—First Officer Gerald Patch (Cooper), a merchant marine eking out an existence on the ship, recently abandoned, and desperately trying to scuttle it before it sinks. With the reluctant help of Sands, Patch gets the boiler-room going, the ship under power, and the Captain-by-default's mission accomplished.
All of which is great stuff—the conflicts, the questionable sanity of Patch, Sands' greediness in wanting to claim the salvage on the ship—which would have made a great film if it ended there. Unfortunately, that's only thirty minutes of it. It would have been a great short subject, though, but the movie trundles along over the investigation and trial over who owns the boat and the conflicting testimonies between Patch and the eventually-found crew (ring-leadered by Richard Harris, who can't seem to eke out an interesting performance out of the material, try as he might). Both Cooper and Heston are good, in what seems to be dueling portrayals of earnestness. But, ultimately, the secrets that Patch is keeping just aren't very interesting, and although some attempt is made to salvage it at the end, the movie is, like its namesake, something of a drifting hulk.