On its simplest level, Jerzy Skolimowski’s new film, “The Lightship” (Beverly Center Cineplex), is a suspense story of the “Desperate Hours” variety--about a group of psychopathic hoods who take over a ship, hold the crew hostage and eventually force a showdown with the captain. But it’s also a moral fable and an allegory.

The original novel, by Siegfried Lenz, is widely considered a parable about Hitler and the Nazi subjugation of Germany, and the film was actually shot near Germany, in the North Sea. Although Skolimowski deliberately plays down the allegorical elements, they pop up anyway.

This ship, the Hatteras, is not a regular vessel but a lightship, anchored as a bad-weather guide for sea craft off the Virginia coast. It’s the mid-1950s and the captain, Miller (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer), is a German-American who was once forced to abandon part of his crew in a World War II battle. On board as a moral witness is his son, Alex.


A ship that can’t move and a captain who, like Lord Jim, must redeem himself. All you need now are villains who philosophize about the beauty of negation. And “The Lightship” has a doozy: an effete gunrunner named Caspary (Robert Duvall), who minces around on board like the Purple Orchid of Old Virginia, with his two cretinous leather-jacket gunsels, and who has a voice lifted impishly from William F. Buckley Jr.--all resonant purrs, playful verbosity, elaborate metaphors and lizard-like flicks of the tongue.

Duvall and Brandauer have obviously switched roles here. Caspary is a part tailor-made for the star of “Mephisto,” and Duvall--in real life an admiral’s son--could be easily typed as the tortured captain (that would do away with explanations about the captain’s unlikely Teutonic heritage as well). It might seem that the movie is sabotaged by the change, especially since Brandauer is so clearly uncomfortable in his part. But he is a magnetic actor; his very discomfort brings out interesting shadings. And you wouldn’t have wanted to miss Duvall’s Caspary for anything. This is a wonderful, acidly playful star turn, and Duvall, a great movie actor, obviously relishes every moment of it.

“The Lightship” (MPAA-rated: PG-13) is a fine, offbeat thriller, even though obviously a troubled production. It has two large flaws: a flat ending, and narration by the captain’s son, which often tells us what we can guess while underlining aspects that don’t need emphasis. This narration was a last-minute editing fix: Budget problems eliminated a few opening scenes, and Skolimowski added voice-overs to explain what happened in them. But he shouldn’t have chosen Alex (played by his own son, Michael Lyndon) as the narrator. It overloads the story and tends to sink the irony.

Skolimowski is still a master at creating and sustaining mood. Few film makers can make your skin crawl in precisely this way, squeeze out so much macabre humor--or compel you into such a strange, cold, gray, nerve-rattling world. (It’s reminiscent in odd ways of “Knife in the Water,” the movie that made young screenwriter Skolimowski’s and young director Roman Polanski’s reputations.) This is not a great film, as his two previous releases, “Moonlighting” and “The Shout,” were. But even a flawed film from a Skolimowski, a Duvall and a Brandauer is better than the best of many others.


A Castle Hill release of a CBS productions presentation. Producers Moritz Borman, Bill Benenson. Director Jerzy Skolimowski. Script William Mai, David Taylor. Executive producer Rainer Soehnein. Music Stanley Myers. Camera Charley Steinberger. Editor Barry Vince. With Robert Duvall, Klaus Maria Brandauer, William Forsythe.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).