3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Summer 2015

Joined by the Dead

Image Map - Text Links at Page Bottom
Javier Marías

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,
directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz,

There is something peculiar about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a peculiarity shared, I think, by few other movies, in that we desperately want the protagonist to die, even though we bear her no ill feeling at all. On the contrary, the character played by Gene Tierney—Lucy Muir—is an instantly touching figure from the very first moment she appears, when, having been a widow for a year, she decides to leave her unpleasant sister-in-law and her mother-in-law in order to go and live by the sea with her small daughter, Anna (Natalie Wood), and the old maidservant she brought with her when she married, Martha (Edna Best). With the income from some gold shares left to her by her husband, the late Edwin Muir, she intends renting a house in Whitecliff-by-the-Sea. At first, this seems like a feeble act of rebellion, a modest escape, as does her decision to shut herself away. Lucy Muir is going to withdraw into a tiny, female world, in which one would assume nothing unexpected would happen, as if, rather than quickly and easily embracing widowhood, she were regressing to a state of adolescent waiting and hoping: a vague and possibly hopeless wait, an empty wait, letting the doubtless monotonous days pass, with the only change being Anna growing up and Mrs. Muir and her maid Martha gradually growing older. Lucy Muir comments how useless she feels, adding: “Here I am nearly halfway through my life and what have I done?”—to which Martha retorts: “I know what I done, all right…cooked enough steaks to choke an hippopotamus.” Lucy’s comment about her uselessness is just that, a comment, not a complaint. In a way, you could see Lucy Muir as someone who is not so much resigned as reconciled to her lot: a conventional marriage, affectionate rather than passionate; a daughter for whose existence she takes no credit (“She just happened”); a death that didn’t even take away her reason for living or cause her to fall into despair; silent acceptance, an absence of desires: perhaps that is what being reconciled to one’s fate means.

Mankiewicz’s movie is, however, a movie about words, about their power, their ability to enchant and persuade as well as to incite, seduce, and enamor. It isn’t only about that, of course, but it’s certainly also about that. The ghost who inhabits the house, the ship’s captain, Daniel Gregg—who has Rex Harrison’s magnificent face—immediately infects Lucy Muir with his slightly coarse sailor’s vocabulary. One night, in the middle of a storm, Lucy goes down to the kitchen to boil some water, and the candles and the matches she tries to light keep going out; she angrily challenges the ghost to speak and show himself, calling him a coward. That is when Captain Gregg makes his initial appearance as, first, an audible voice, then a visible presence; and Lucy accepts him at once, asking only to be given a moment to get accustomed to the idea. And in that same conversation, in which the ghost is still slightly threatening in his manner as he explains why he haunts the house that was once his (a rather feeble plot device: he wants the house to become a home for retired sailors, which is why he doesn’t want any tenants), Lucy becomes annoyed and, to show her annoyance, repeats the Captain’s favorite word three times, “Blast! Blast! Blast!”—the first symptom of contagion. Verbal contagion, that is.

This scene incorporates two of the movie’s other fundamental elements: the natural acceptance of the dead as an active presence and the potency of inanimate objects and their capacity to choose the living and people in general, and not just, as is commonly believed, the other way round. Even though the Captain is dead, has no material existence, no body—as he himself points out, “I haven’t had one for four years”—Lucy immediately acknowledges him as the true owner of the house, which, in fact, officially belongs to a cousin of his, to whom Lucy pays the rent. When the Captain proposes that they make a bargain and tells her that she can stay, that he won’t drive her out, she responds with gratitude, as if she had received the blessing and the permission of the genuine owner, the spirit of the house, because things belong to the person, whether living or dead, whom they choose to belong to, and not the other way round; the worldly convention of legal possession has no real importance, but is merely a formalistic, bureaucratic hassle that one must dodge, avoid, or fight. To Lucy it is immediately obvious that the house she is living in, and for which she pays rent, belongs to the Captain, who designed and built it, and she therefore accepts his world without hesitation, as an act of justice. The Captain, in turn, despite his initial response, agrees to let her stay because Lucy tells him that the moment she saw the house, she felt it welcoming her, as if it were waiting for her. The Captain understands this, for he remembers having the same feeling when he stood before his first ship, which he found “rusting in the Mersey, gear all foul and a pigsty below,” and recalls how she sailed twice as sweetly for him as she would for any other master, out of gratitude—words that could have been drawn from Conrad’s memoirs (especially The Mirror of the Sea), in which he speaks at length about the sensitivity of ships, their gratitude, their refusal to be mistreated, their understanding of the character of their captain, their ability to recognize and feel betrayed or supported by the person in charge. That is why the house, called Gull Cottage, suddenly appears as a ship, not just in the characters’ imaginations, but in the viewer’s imagination too, helped by the proximity of the sea and by the telescope that presides over Lucy’s room, in which most of the scenes in which she and the Captain appear take place, and which is, in effect, their room. The Captain promises not to leave that room and not to frighten Anna, on condition that Lucy moves his portrait in there. (“It’s a very poor painting,” she says. “It’s my painting,” retorts the ghost.)

From that point on, they lead an almost conjugal life. Even though she can see and hear the Captain, Lucy immediately grasps that he is pure spirit and so she happily gets undressed and goes to bed in a room that is not only haunted but inhabited by him. Even on the first night, when the ghost’s voice makes some appreciative comment about her figure (which he has obviously studied at his leisure), she barely protests, because the Captain is a spirit, albeit a talking one, a figment. One of the most extraordinary aspects of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is that the two characters are fully conscious of the two different dimensions in which they move—the physical and the illusory—and they never rebel against them. It would have been a simple enough way of tugging at the viewer’s heart-strings if either character had made a fruitless, despairing attempt to touch or embrace the other. This never happens; they never touch, and the impossibility of any contact is never underlined, the frustration and horror of wanting contact but never achieving it is never made visible, or only in that early scene, when they are both in the kitchen and Lucy goes over to him, pleased because she’s being allowed to stay in the house, and he stops her, warning her to keep her distance, but this might simply be because they don’t know each other and because, in England, at that time, people didn’t usually shake hands, still less kiss or embrace by way of greeting; nor does that scene insist on their different material or immaterial natures. And yet that is the main cause of the heartbreak contained in the story being told: we know this and know it well enough for it not to be shown visually.

I described the story as heartbreaking, and in my view it is, despite the happy ending, because that ending lies outside the story itself, even though it is necessary and in no way seems like an addition or a sop to the audience. From the moment one accepts that the living and the dead can live together in the world, that happy ending is the only possible one, but it doesn’t make what happens to the characters during the movie any less sad, especially what happens to Lucy Muir. As the Captain says at one point, he has unlimited time at his disposal (one assumes he doesn’t even have such a thing as “time”), but she, of course, does not: time in her dimension—the only one she knows and can, therefore, imagine for herself—is limited and must be made the most of, because there will be no other time. And the ghost, who has experienced both dimensions, knows this well: the time of the flesh and the body, the time of the living—real time—does not come back. There are several scenes in which Lucy rebels against the Captain’s slightly superior manner. When he tries to persuade her not to fall into the clutches of the seductive Miles Fairley, the children’s author known as “Uncle Neddy”—an extraordinary performance by George Sanders—Lucy asks him if it’s a crime to be alive, and if he feels so superior because he isn’t. And the Captain responds by saying that sometimes living is a great inconvenience because “the living can be hurt.” Then shortly afterwards he adds, “Real happiness is worth almost any risk,” and behind this confession lies his own decision to disappear.

The romance between Lucy and the Captain is that of married life, of habit, of long knowledge of each other, of growing trust, and the gradual discovery that one cannot do without the other. It is the romance of conversation, and it is perhaps appropriate to recall that, shortly before he died and when asked in an interview what he thought of present-day movies, Joseph L. Mankiewicz said that what he regretted most of all was the loss of the word: for him, the cinema was not just about image, but an inseparable combination of image and word, the latter, according to him, having been driven out in the 1970s and 1980s. The relationship between Lucy and the Captain is forged, initially, out of their day-to-day contact (Lucy sews, and instead of sewing in silence and alone, she chats to the ghost—who, unlike any real husband, has nothing else to do), and, later, out of their joint endeavor writing the autobiography that the Captain decides to dictate to her so that she can earn enough money to enable her to buy the house, when the shares left to her by Edwin Muir plummet in value, leaving her penniless. It’s through the story of the Captain’s life, Blood and Swash (Lucy is the physical intermediary, the one putting the words down on paper, although not without blushing occasionally), that she gets to know him and to begin “to miss him” and to regret not having coincided with him in constantly passing time, not to have seen him when he first went to sea at sixteen or even before that, as a boy living with a maiden aunt who missed him when he left. One of the most moving moments comes early on, when Lucy Muir identifies with that aunt, who, according to the Captain, must have thanked heaven to see the back of him and not have to clean her carpets so often. Lucy says nothing, and when the Captain asks her what she’s thinking, she says, “I’m thinking how lonely she must have felt with her clean carpets.” Lucy knows what is happening, and so does the ghost. The Spanish writer Juan Benet wrote in one of his novels: “I have never understood why love always arrives so late for its appointment with the appointed person.” Here love arrives even later than usual, when nothing can happen, when there is no possible plan for the future and everything is already in the past. When they finish writing the book, and Lucy realizes that she was happy while they were doing it, because they were doing something together, she asks the Captain, “What’s to become of us, Daniel? Of you and me?” and the Captain’s response leaves no room for doubt: “Nothing can become of me. Everything’s happened that can happen.” “But not to me,” says Lucy, suddenly aware that her time continues to flow. And it is then that the ghost reminds her that she should go out into the world more, meet people, “see men,” as he puts it.

But while that aspect of the story is quite heartbreaking enough, it isn’t only that: it isn’t just the story of a love that arrives too late, that begins too late and will come to nothing; it’s a story of renunciation, the renunciation of something that is only words and imagination, the renunciation of the unsatisfactory and the absurd, the dreamed or fantasized, the renunciation, above all, of memory. Lucy meets Miles Fairley, who courts and seduces her. There is a moment in the film when Bernard Herrmann’s marvelous music (which stands comparison with even the finest soundtracks he composed for Hitchcock) announces the threat and the imminent end of her relationship with the Captain in a very subtle way, while what we see on screen doesn’t appear to suggest this at all: an old sailor, Mr. Scroggins, has just carved little Anna Muir’s name on a piece of wood, saying that her name will remain there forever. Lucy is swimming in the sea, her daughter calls to her to come and see the present that Mr. Scroggins has made for her. That is all. It seems to be no more than a linking scene, tranquil, neutral, and rather joyful (although the progressive deterioration of the piece of wood and the still intact name will give us an idea, later on, of the passing of the years). And yet the music is terrifying, at once nostalgic and ominous, apparently referring to what is going to happen as if it had already happened: that act of renunciation, the disappearance of the Captain, his farewell and his fall into oblivion. Miles Fairley sweeps Lucy off her feet, and she finds him exciting and fascinating. The Captain doesn’t like him and is clearly jealous, although he denies this, saying, “Jealousy is a disease of the flesh,” knowing full well that this is not strictly true. Martha doesn’t like “Uncle Neddy” either and does everything she can to dissuade Lucy, until Lucy counters with the cast-iron argument: “But he’s real.”

In a movie that is at once so measured, intense, sober, and so full of lyricism as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it is hard to select particular highlights, morceaux de bravoure, but if there is one scene that stands out from all the rest it is the farewell scene. The Captain has decided to step aside and not get in the way of Lucy’s “temporal time,” even though she is still expecting or hoping that he will stop her planned marriage to the very real Fairley, her marriage to reality. When she is alone—having just explained to Martha why she loves Fairley, however conceited, erratic, and even childish he may be, defects she is more than aware of—she goes over to the portrait of the ghost and says, “Well, Daniel, haven’t you anything to say?” The Captain’s voice does not thunder forth as it did on so many other occasions; there is only silence, because he is already leaving. And then comes the farewell scene: Lucy is sleeping, and, as he so often has before, the Captain enters the room via the balcony and talks to her, reproaching her, at first, for not being as sensible as he had thought, but then he adds: “Don’t trouble yourself, my dear. It’s not your fault… You’ve made your choice, the only choice you could make. You’ve chosen life.” Then, in her dream, he orders her to forget him, so that tomorrow “in the morning and the years after” she’ll remember him only as a dream, a state of mind, an atmosphere that filled her and even prompted her to write a book, which, he tells her, she wrote entirely alone. The Captain gives her not only the royalties, which he had already given to her in their mutual desire to preserve the house, but also his own story, the story of his life, which, from then on, she will believe she invented. This is a crucial moment in the movie, because the ghost becomes doubly a ghost, or rather, he becomes a “real” ghost by becoming an object in a dream as well as a fictional character, Lucy’s creation. It’s as if the ghost had died a second time, had vanished and was thus even less real, even more ghostly when he discovers that, despite being no one, despite having neither flesh nor body, he can still inflict harm. There is a kind of despair at life and the living, as if, even though dead and firmly established in a state in which nothing can become of him, and everything that can happen has happened, the part of him that still makes contact with the living, the part that is still alive in him—his words, his laughter, his company—remains tirelessly harmful and a hindrance. Before disappearing, before his second death, the Captain allows himself a moment of nostalgia that foreshadows the death of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, when the replicant regrets the fact that everything he has seen and experienced will die with him (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”). Here, Captain Gregg looks at the sleeping Lucy and pronounces a few lines that could have come straight out of Eliot’s Prufrock: “How you’d have loved the North Cape and the fjords and the midnight sun, to sail across the reef at Barbados, where the blue water turns to green, to the Falklands where a southerly gale rips the whole sea white!”—and he concludes, “What we’ve missed, Lucia! What we’ve both missed.”

The rest of the movie passes quickly, although years and years go by, indicated, as I mentioned earlier, by the piece of wood bearing the inscription “Anna Muir” and by the shots of waves breaking endlessly on the shore and accompanied by Maestro Herrmann’s now wild music. After this, it is Lucy Muir’s much shorter skirt that tells us how much time she has spent alone. It’s not long before Lucy discovers that Miles Fairley is already married and has two children, in a wonderful scene when she goes to visit him at his London address and is received by his wife (Anna Lee), who tries to console her, saying, “It isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”

Lucy’s life, her time—the time of her physical life, the time allotted to her, the time that is subject to change and in which things can still happen—has flowed past in solitude and emptiness, although not filled with any nostalgic thoughts of the Captain, who has freed her from having to remember him when he gave her his instructions before leaving via the balcony: an extraordinarily considerate gift. However, her life, her time, “real” time, has passed without love or flesh or body or words or conversation, in the hopeless state of hope and waiting that Lucy appears to have chosen at the very start of the movie and from which she emerged with the intrusion into her life of Captain Gregg. One must assume that he has spent his timeless time waiting for a future identical to the past, waiting to “experience” what he has already “experienced,” namely, the company of Lucy Muir, and that cannot happen as long as she remains among the living. His impatience, therefore, will have been directed at the past, a past that was not a past because he was already dead when it began.

Little Anna is now a young woman, who comes to visit her mother, bringing with her the sailor to whom she is about to be engaged. And suddenly, in the conversation between mother and daughter, they both discover that the other also saw and knew the Captain, or dreamed of him during that first year in Gull Cottage, the house by the sea. Both were in love with him, the little girl as a little girl, and the mother as a grown woman. And Anna says to her mother: “Perhaps he did exist, the Captain. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he had… Then you’d have something to look back on with happiness.” And her view of memory is exactly the opposite of the Captain’s, who sees memory as being the greatest source of unhappiness.

There is not much more to tell. We again see the waves breaking on the shore, and Lucy Muir appears briefly, this time with very white hair. She still lives with Martha, both having grown old together (as it seemed they would at the very beginning of their adventure), both talking to each other in the simultaneously fond and tetchy spirit of those who have been too long in each other’s company. Lucy has a granddaughter, also called Lucy, who, as she learns in a letter, is about to get married. That scene is only an epilogue, the scene showing her peaceful, painless death, the moment longed for and expected, although not perhaps by her (or perhaps it was), and, of course, by the Captain and by the viewer. The glass of milk is spilt, and the ghost will tell his beloved as soon as she is dead: “And now you’ll never be tired again.” He holds out his hand to help her up from the armchair in which she has died and, arm-in-arm, they leave the house where they first met and where they lived together.

This apparently happy ending is the only possible one in a movie in which the supernatural is instantly accepted as natural, in which we must pass continually from one dimension to the other, not simply as part of the pleasure of the movie, but as a means to understanding it. And yet, as I said earlier, the story of Lucy Muir and Captain Daniel Gregg seems to me one of the most heartbreaking in the history of cinema; the heartbreak is there in the words spoken by the ghost created by Mankiewicz and by screenwriter Philip Dunne, when the Captain bids farewell to Lucy: “What we’ve missed, Lucia! What we’ve both missed!” The Captain is anticipating, because not only did they miss meeting each other when there was still time and physical reality; they did not only miss the North Cape and the fjords and the midnight sun, but also the years of conversation and laughter and company that could have awaited them during the time allotted to Lucy, who, in choosing the living, ultimately chose nothing, whose life was thus wasted, spoiled: that was her fate, to be someone to whom anything could have happened, but nothing did, or perhaps only that state of hopeless waiting. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is not a mere fairy tale or ghost story; and although its director, Joseph Mankiewicz, considered it a youthful experiment, in my opinion he made a movie—on a par with John Huston’s The Dead—that goes much further in touching on something rarely touched on in the cinema or in literature: the abolition of time, the vision of the future as past and the past as future, reconciliation with the dead and with the serene, deep-seated desire to at last be one of them.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Javier Marías, Spain's foremost contemporary novelist, has had his work translated into more than forty languages; his most recent novel to appear in English is The Infatuations. Margaret Jull Costa, who has been his translator since 1992, is currently translating his latest novel, Thus Bad Begins; in 2014 she was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

Home PageCurrent IssuePast IssuesReading RoomGallery
BooksLinksAdvertisingSubmissionsSubscribeContact UsDonate

The Threepenny Review