In modern horror films ghosts are used for vessels to express our fear of dying. They lurk behind corners, invade your living rooms through televisions and generally just creep the protagonist out. It is rare that you see ghosts as three-dimensional beings with thoughts and feelings. But in Golden Age Hollywood, anything was possible. Love could come to even the most spectral of beings. Romance could sharpen and clean the image of a distraught sea-captain ghost. But how can a thing that isn’t supposed to be alive anymore feel emotions? How is he woo his love, if he can’t actually touch her? The Ghost and Mrs. Muir provides easy, yet complex answers to these questions.
Mrs. Muir is a widower with a small child. Once her husband dies, she decides to move out of her mother’s house and rent a small cottage by the sea. She finds one that is suited to both her budget and her romantic notions. But there is one small problem. It is haunted by a sea-captain. He has scared off several tenants before, but he will not scare off Mrs. Muir. She stands up to him and he appears to her, fully formed. They form an unlikely friendship and he helps her get out of money troubles by telling her his story. The ghost slowly falls for this woman who refuses to give up the master bedroom or head his decorating ideas. But a widower needs a human lover in order to satisfy her longings. She meets a horrible children’s book author and she falls in love with him instantly. They court for a while and she decides she wants to marry him. The ghost feels slighted, but resolved to keep her happy. He decides to leave her for the afterlife. What will Mrs. Muir do without him?
This was an effective romance story, if a little conventional, despite the ghost angle. Gene Tierney who plays Mrs. Muir elevates her character into a woman with strong independent will without making her bitchy. A lesser actress would have turned her into a wishy-washy spoiled brat. She is determined to live the life she wanted and no one not even her mother in law, leasing agent or a ghost is going to stop her. She makes mistakes, but she learns from them and is determined to never make them again. Rex Harrison as the sea-captain ghost compliments her performance. On the surface the character seems to be nothing but a gruff sea-captain stereotype (complete with angular beard and blue turtleneck), but Harrison brings his natural ability to be warm and inviting to the character making him rough yet gentle. These attributes are highlighted even more when Mrs. Muir falls for the children’s author who is also a terrible playboy. Whereas the children’s author is presumptuous and debonair, the ghost is courteous (at least at this point in the story) and full of genuine admiration for his love.
The look and the music of the film are what really stands out besides the superb acting. Charles Lang, the cinematographer, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director, was able to take the limitations of black and white and create beautiful shadows and striking images. A seaside town can look washed out in black and white due to the high sun and light colors of the landscape. Lang played off this lightness by choosing dramatically different lighting for the two love interests. When Mrs. Muir is with the sea-captain, they are in dark rooms, punctured by storms and heavy objects like the telescope, his painting and the drapes. In contrast, when Mrs. Muir is with her children’s book author, action takes place outside in the open air and right next to the sea. Their scenes seem to have this artificial romanticism to them that seems fake and in big contrast to her scenes with the sea captain. The score for the picture was done by the legendary composer, Bernard Herrmann. He was able to match the sweetness of the romance story and the bitterness of the harsh sea in his swirling score. According to a fact on IMDb (take it with a grain of salt), Herrmann was heard saying that this was his favorite score that he ever produced. This love for the score is evident each movement. While he is known for more famous movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Psycho and Citizen Kane, I will like him best for this one.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a pleasant movie. Although I have only watched this film once, I am sure I will go back to it time and time again. It is a beautiful feature that helps while away a cold and wet night.