After having won an Oscar for suffering subtly, Simone Signoret received her second nomination for a role in which she showed again that no great overacting is needed to create a memorable character.
Ship of Fools is an ensemble piece that tells the story of various characters who are on a passenger ship on their way to Germany shortly before Hitler’s raise to power.
Almost all of the characters are introduced in a rather simple way. While they are eating in the dining room, the scenes cuts from table to table and show the various passengers and introduce the viewer to their storyline. There is a Nazi sympathizer, a friendly Jew, a woman hunter and others.
Only one character enters the movie in a rather spectacular way and that is the La Condesa, played by Simone Signoret. When the ship makes a stop in Cuba to take hundreds of Spanish peasants back to Spain, there is suddenly a cheer in the crowd and all the people start to joyfully shout and wave and call “Condesa!” And then the Condesa enters, accompanied by two prison guards. This almost royal entrance already sets her character apart from all the others on the ship.
Simone right from the beginning shows her talent for quiet suffering: we see no joy in the Condesa, she rather appears sad and defeated and not once does she look at the joyful crowd that is cheering to her.
Like in Room at the Top, Simone again plays a mature, adult woman who is dealing with a rather stern and humorless man. To make her Condesa an effective counterpart to Oskar Werner’s Dr. Schumann, she mixes her character’s sadness with a hint of humor and relaxed openness. She seems to take an interest in him, she is amused by him. This results in a wonderful, interesting and captivating chemistry with Oskar Werner and the two of them easily turn their storyline into the most interesting one of the movie (but to be honest, that’s not that difficult since almost all the other storylines tend to be underwhelming or downright horrible; especially José Ferrer is too awful to describe).
Simone and Oskar are very charming in their relationship. There is something about their acting that makes it seem like they are two curious teenagers but at the same time the burden and problems of their lives and their experience are obvious in every frame.
There is also the question if she really loves him or is trying to get his sympathy to receive drugs from him. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is rather undeveloped and Simone seems to try to make her characher more likeable by focusing on the romantic aspect of the story.
La Condesa is a women who openly talks about personal things without holding anything back. She is a very honest person and Simone is, as usually, able to show tragedy and sorrow on her expressive face in a very remarkable way.
And also like in Room at the Top, Simone Signoret lacks screen time compared to other leading ladies but the big difference is that she was still a central character and dominated the story. In Ship of Fools, Simone only exists in her own storyline and even though it is clearly the best of the movie, she is quickly forgotten whenever she leaves the screen. It’s a clear ensemble piece and it’s hard to point out Simone as a leading character and she is not able to lift the whole movie to a greater level. She also suffers from the fact that Oskar Werner overshadows her.
Simone adds a lot of dignity to her part but apart from suffering for 20 minutes, she barely gets anything to do. She is the female part of a very romantic, hopeless and tragic storyline but her presence is too limited and her character too underdeveloped to really shine.
Overall, it’s an effective performance that getes