Mark Robson, 1943
Starring: Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Ben Bard
Val Lewton’s second film with director Mark Robson is also his first with an almost all male cast. Tom, a merchant marine, gets a job as the third officer aboard the ship Altair. The captain, Will Stone, is a kindly, father figure and the rest of the crew seems friendly, though things start off a little weird when Tom’s cabin is a mess because it still hasn’t been cleaned up from the death of the former third officer. When crew members begin dying, Tom suspects that the Captain is responsible and that the once kindly man has some very dark secrets. When they dock to find more crew members, Tom begins a formal inquiry against the Captain, though Tom loses and resigns his post. When Tom tries to break up an unrelated fight, he is badly beaten and the Altair’s crew members bring him back aboard for medical treatment. He is now trapped there, forced to confront Captain Stone a final time.
Though technically written by Leo Mittler and Donald Henderson Clarke, Lewton did all the final edits and came up with the general story idea. When the film was released in theaters (it did well, despite some mixed reviews), Lewton was sued for plagiarism shortly after by two playwrights who claimed that Lewton stole most of the plot elements from a script they had submitted for review. Though Lewton said he returned the script unread, he lost the case. As a result, The Ghost Ship was removed from theaters and wasn’t available for almost 50 years, until the copyright expired and it entered the public domain in the ‘90s. This allowed it to finally be released on DVD a few years later.
Though this is one of my least favorite Lewton films, it is still an interesting experiment in subtle, psychological terror and explores many of Lewton’s common themes. Richard Dix is fantastic as the maniacal Captain Stone, a man whose insanity is boiling just beneath the surface of a calm exterior. He is never portrayed as truly mad or unhinged and his humanity is always apparent. Rather, Stone has slowly lost his grasp on reality because of all the years spent in isolation on a ship. The only female character in the film, Stone’s fiancee (Edith Barrett, another Lewton regular), finally obtains a divorce and tells Stone that they can now really be together. He rejects her and goes back to the ship, saying that it is too late. All the time that Stone spends alone on the ship with an entirely male crew is presented as being perverse in some way, as warping Stone, and some critics read this as a homosexual subtext. The film raises an issue also explored in other Lewton films - the effect of a healthy relationship on a person’s life. Lewton’s most miserable, isolated characters all suffer from failed relationships, divorce, infidelity, falling in love with the wrong person. Captain Stone has spent his life isolated on a ship and in love with a woman who was married to someone else.
The most interesting relationship in the film is the father-son bond that begins to form between Stone and Tom (Russell Wade, who would go on to have a similar relationship in The Body Snatcher). Their discussions about the importance of command, authority, and responsibility provide a philosophical depth to the proceedings. We learn that Stone kills because he believes he has the authority and is somewhat power mad with the thought of so many men’s lives in his hands. It is clear that the young, promising, and naive Tom is following in Stone’s career footsteps and has the potential to follow in his psychological footsteps as well.
Part of the reason Lewton made The Ghost Ship is because RKO wanted to capitalize on the giant ship set built for another film. Like most of Lewton’s films, the dreary, claustrophobic set and stark cinematography from regular collaborator Nicholas Musuraca is extremely effective. Director Mark Robson was fresh off of editing the Orson Welles film Journey into Fear and there are certainly similarities between the two to The Ghost Ship’s great benefit. There are some horror undertones, namely a terrifying scene with a giant, murderous cargo hook swinging dangerously around the boat like some kind of otherworldly creature, and one of the mute crewmen (Skelton Knaggs) does a gothic-influenced voice over for much of the film.
I’m not sure if I can recommend The Ghost Ship, but anyone who enjoys lower key psychological thrillers will want to check it out. Just don’t go in with the expectations that there are ghosts, a haunted ship, pirates, or anything that the somewhat lurid title implies. The acting and directing are all excellent, but the ending is a bit abrupt and the pace may be a little slow and uneventful for contemporary audiences. Possibly because of his lack of compelling female characters with any serious screen time, the characters are also not as complex or as well developed as in Lewton’s best films. Like some of Lewton’s other films from this period, this is a sort of twist on the conventional murder mystery and is considerably more morbid than other films of this type from the period. The Ghost Ship is available on DVD with Lewton’s superior The Leopard Man. It is also part of the excellent Val Lewton Horror Collection box set.