Stranger Than Fiction: Hitchcockian Scuttlebutt

It was somewhat humorously suggested to me that I should do a reading on the Marie Celeste, the ship that was found derelict off the coast of Africa in the late 19th Century.

How many possibilities are there? The food was still warm on the plates when the crew from another ship came on board in thick fog. I believe candles were still burning but not a soul on board. Pirates or alien abduction. Or what? While this is not really a “fictional” reading, I decided to take a shot and pull just one card as to what caused the crew to abandon ship.”

The card I pulled was the 2 of Knives Sabotage

2 knives sab.jpg

Perhaps the first thing we notice is the film’s star, Sylvia Sidney, is wearing a sailor suit. The 2 candles in the foreground and the dinner table suggest the “food still warm on the plates” and “candles… still burning” which Dodalisque mentioned. What interests me more is what we see in the background, since that suggests the mystery’s “behind the scenes” aspects. First, we see a toy boat that Sidney and her young brother worked on at one point in the film. Behind that is Sidney’s husband and a fellow saboteur, their backs to us, meeting surreptitiously in the aquarium. On the left are orange fish while on the right is Hitchcock’s impressionistic rendition of London “melting” after a bomb goes off. Eventually, 2 bombs go off in Sabotage, the first kills Sidney’s brother, the second kills the bomb maker and obscures the fact that Sidney had killed her husband.

Based on this, I wager to guess the empty Marie Celeste was abandoned because of either an explosion or the threat of an explosion. There may have been some foul play that was covered up by succeeding events, and the explosion could have been threatened either from within the ship or from without – by nature or other humans. The underlying almost metaphysical meaning of the 2 of Knives is sacrifice – I propose that the Marie Celeste’s captain sacrificed his ship for the safety of the crew, but his precaution back-fired.

Knowing really nothing about the Marie Celeste incident, I decided to read up on it.

It turns out that the ship’s actual name was Mary Celeste, and that many of the details surrounding the incident were embellished and/or invented, much of them by a young Arthur Conan Doyle. Curiously, then, my reading it turns out was a “fictional” reading, based as much on myth and creative writing as on historical fact. Further to this, the AHT card/film I pulled, Sabotage, is based on the 19th Century novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, himself a sailor.

One of the invented details was the dinner still warm on the table and a fire burning (rather than candles) in the hearth. As it turns out, one of the prevailing theories is the “explosion” theory, which posits that the crew, fearing an explosion, got into the lifeboat and either attempted to make it to shore or wait until the fumes cleared. Unfortunately, however, the towline broke, causing the lifeboat and ship to drift apart. There was no evidence of an explosion, but the sails were mostly furled, suggesting the crew took them down to reduce the ship’s mobility. The Mary Celeste’s cargo was methylated spirits, which remained intact on the ship; this could have easily produced the fumes and the threat of explosion. What’s more, an experiment was conducted in the early 2000s wherein a flash explosion of methylated spirits ripped through a model ship without leaving any trace of fire damage. This question of whether there was or wasn’t an explosion recalls how, for 40 years after making Sabotage, Hitchcock lamented actually exploding the bomb which killed Sidney’s brother – he claimed if he could’ve done it over, he would’ve averted the explosion.

With regards the notion of foul play: speculation of deceit and misdeed was rampant, most regarding the Mary Celeste’s captain, Benjamin Briggs, and the captain of the Canadian boat which found the Celeste, David Morehouse. In maritime law, a captain who found a derelict boat was entitled to a substantial share of the salvage. At the trial, Morehouse was accused of being in cahoots with Briggs, getting the crew drunk on the cargo (even though it was not potable), and killing Briggs and his crew for the spoils. Interestingly, excessive water was found in the Celeste’s hull, leading some to speculate the ship’s pump had been tampered with. Meanwhile, the prosecutor spearheading the charge against Morehouse was named Flood. I mention this because Sabotage begins with a London-wide blackout caused by the intentional sabotage of a pump. In the end, no evidence for foul play was found at the Mary Celeste trial, and Morehouse received a smaller payment for salvaging the ship than expected.

One last thought: The bomb that kills Sidney’s brother is hidden within film canisters and the final bomb goes off at Sidney’s cinema. Hitchcock changed the locale of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, setting it against the backdrop of the most popular form of entertainment of the time, the movie house. Starting with Conan Doyle, the story of the Mary Celeste has been embroidered and fictionalized, from newspaper and magazine articles to radio plays, TV movies, and a Dr. Who episode. This speaks to humanity’s love of mystery and invention – a ripping good yarn – but also reveals the power of sabotage and what today we call terrorism – namely, the dreadful power of the unknown and our own fear.

Post-script: Hitchcock worked for some time on the script for The Wreck of the Mary Deare, based on the novel by Hammond Innes which took the Mary Celeste story as its inspiration. Hitchcock’s interest in the adaptation never caught fire, so he scuttled it and made North By Northwest instead.

Published by Chas Tringham

Chas Tringham wasn't so much born on February 26 1969, as he was raised in absentia. He is the son of J.J. Bieber and a discounted sack of millet. Chas' mother was 17 years old when she became 18. His parents would never marry, or merry, Queen of Scots, but maintained a close call and the common cold regarding their son's personal acne and professional malfeasance. Growing up, Chas taught those closest to him to resent the trumpet. On or about September 9/11, Chas' step-uncle's memoir, the eminently readable "Chaps", was publicly ignored. The book tells of his/her early dinners and reads it a story before bedtime. Looking back, Chas maintained contacts with his optometrist, who later married two women and an unemployed bird enthusiast. Interested in honkies, soccer, and ice-chests, Chas keeps his aspirations in a sweat sock.

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