From the vault: 1957

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

Sea Wife

Starring: Richard Burton, Joan Collins, Basil Sydney

Director: Bob McNaught

The film: A curiously engaging film despite its faults, Sea Wife was originally to have been directed by Roberto Rossellini, but the screenplay (adapted from J.M. Scott's novel Sea-Wyf and Biscuit) that he brought to the project was considered too steamy by 20th Century Fox. Instead, the film's production designer, Bob McNaught, took the reins, and while the results are interesting, the gap left by the Italian's departure is quite noticeable.

An early vehicle for rising British stars Richard Burton and Joan Collins, Sea Wife begins with a series of cryptic notices left in the personal columns of the London newspapers by someone called 'Biscuit', who is in search of 'Sea Wife'. Eventually, Biscuit (Burton, right with Collins) is invited by a mystery third party to a meeting, which leads to a flashback to the evacuation of Singapore in 1942.

A merchant ship heading leaving for India is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, after which Burton and Collins find themselves getting acquainted on a rubber dinghy in the company of a boorish businessman and the ship's West Indian purser.

Floating around in the ocean, they give each other nicknames, with Collins becoming 'Sea Wife' while keeping secret the fact that she is actually a nun (her religious garb having been left on the ship).

After the group arrives at a desert island (supposedly one of the Nicobar Islands, but filmed somewhere in the Caribbean), Burton starts making moodily romantic overtures towards Collins while the businessman and purser develop a mutual, racially charged distrust.

With some strong acting and an intriguing set-up, all the ingredients for some fine drama are in place, but the suggestion that inexperienced director McNaught just wanted to get the whole thing over with is pervasive. The film ends after just 82 minutes, leaving the viewer with the feeling that there could and should have been quite a bit more to this initially promising film, which until now has been hard to find.

The extras: There's a surprisingly full package of extras on this new DVD release from the Fox Cinema Classics Collection, at least at first glance. The audio commentary by author and film historian Aubrey Solomon is patchy, with menu instructions before it starts on how to skip through the specially created audio chapter stops. What they don't tell you is that the talking doesn't actually get under way until the 14 minutes 57 seconds mark, so skip straight to that point to begin listening (but beware that Solomon has almost nothing to say - for the most part he just relates what's happening on screen). A strange restoration feature concisely explains the cleanup procedure, and then shows a split-screen before-and-after comparison with both sides looking almost identical.

The animated photo gallery is impressive, with a moody jazz score and dialogue sound bites playing over some digitally manipulated promotional shots and stills. Best of all is the interactive press book, with a feature that allows for the browsing and zooming in on the whole original (and desperate-sounding) sales and marketing pitch delivered to cinema owners.

Tucked inside the case are four postcard-size lobby card reproductions. The widescreen-enhanced 2.35:1 film transfer is acceptable, with strong colours and a choice of original mono or bumped-up stereo sound.