Friday, February 27, 2009

The Ghost Ship

None of the films producer Val Lewton made for RKO in the 40s could be described as conventional horror films, despite their pulp novel titles and horror premises, but The Ghost Ship, Lewton's fifth film and second with director Mark Robson, is possibly the furthest from its horror roots. Before its late detour into escalating madness, the film is a quiet, slowly paced seafaring tale. The idealistic young officer Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is assigned to his first long voyage aboard the ship of the accomplished captain Will Stone (Richard Dix), a well-liked skipper with a stern, iron-hard regard for authority — particularly his own. Throughout the bulk of the film, Lewton and Robson seem less concerned with developing any sense of horror or suspense than with exploring the moral dichotomy between the captain and his young officer.

These issues play out mostly in conversations between the two men, with Captain Stone attempting to impart his sense of the officer's role into his protégé. These moral inquiries are broadly written, dealing in generalities and clichés, and the performances (particularly Wade's groan-inducing kiddish naivete) are stiff and stagey. But the issues the film is interested in exploring are undoubtedly worthwhile: the thirst for control and power, the necessity of speaking out and fighting back against corrupt authority figures (surely a pointed commentary in 1943, with the lessons of Hitler still looming large), the value of human life and the tremendous moral stakes involved in preserving and protecting it. The appropriately named Captain Stone is a man obsessed with power, to the exclusion of all else. He has a woman who loves him (Edith Barrett) in one of the port towns along his route, but he ignores and neglects her, preferring the satisfactions of leadership to those of love. He believes that his stewardship over the men on his ship gives him rights over their lives, and their deaths, an idea the film illustrates with the lovely image of a glowing white moth fluttering around a light bulb. When Stone and Merriam first meet, Merriam makes a gesture to kill the moth, but his superior pulls him up short, telling the younger man that he is not responsible for the moth's safety, and therefore has no right to take its life. It's an elegant, circumspect way of communicating the profound sense of control and entitlement that Stone holds over his crewmen.

Merriam initially finds himself persuaded by Stone's cheerful, casually delivered philosophy and seeming respect for the younger man. But he soon comes to see something darker in the captain, something mad and evil at the core of his philosophy, and this darkness in Stone comes to the fore with increasing frequency throughout the film. At its best, this duel of moral opposites — one believing in the essential goodness and equality of men, the other a totalitarian who calls human beings "cattle" — plays out within the cramped, dimly lit corridors of the ship, its gentle rocking creating pulsating shadows on the walls. The atmosphere is moody and minimalist, and the shipboard setting is sparse. Lewton was using an existing ship set on the RKO lot, and the expressive lighting narrows the focus to the claustrophobic confines of the boat itself, with hardly a glimpse of water or sky beyond its borders.

The film is thus less successful during its middle section, which ventures off the ship into a bright, airy port town where Barrett abruptly appears to humanize the captain, to provide some context for his increasing dementia and isolation from humanity. The film's philosophical and moral beats are pounded home so forcefully that it quickly becomes tiresome, particularly during Barrett's speech to Merriam about meeting girls and creating a life outside of his sailor's work. The dialogue is often clunky and pat. The writing in Lewton's films is never exactly subtle, with the themes inscribed right on the surface, but his earlier productions were generally more poetic and evocative; this one has too much psychoanalytical patter and contrived philosophy. Its poetry is confined to its images, which though not as consistently stunning as earlier Lewton productions, are still often eerie and effective. Lewton and Robson make particularly good use of character actor Skelton Knaggs, whose pockmarked, skeletal visage makes for inherently haunting images. As the mute sailor Finn, Knaggs' role is basically to stand around looking vaguely creepy, staring off to sea, his face half-obscured by shadows.

There also are several moments where Finn's internal monologue provides a poignant counterpoint to the film's theme that human connections are what maintains sanity and the sense of morality. As a mute, Finn has no friends, can foster no relationships with others, and this isolation and alienation torments him, whereas Stone suffers in a self-created isolation, a victim of his own monomania. In the final twenty minutes of the film, as Stone begins to spiral further and further out of control, Dix's increasingly unhinged performance becomes more and more appealing in its wildness. The intensity of his portrayal of Stone as a madman is convincing enough to make one forget the earlier clumsiness and stiffness of his conversations with Merriam. The scenes of the unraveling Stone stalking the ship's narrow hallways carrying a large, glinting knife are among the film's most memorable images. The Ghost Ship might be one of Val Lewton's weaker productions, but it's still an interesting if flawed attempt to create horror from a study of moral opposites.


Expos 1983 Blog said...

yes indeed--this is a worthy addition to the ship as political microcosm genre, in the tradition of Moby Dick and Sea Wolf... I actually prefer it to the Moby Dick films--although, I think Curtiz's Sea Wolf trumps them all!

I've read that B. Traven's Death Ship (an amazing piece of literature) also got the film treatment--I'm gonna have to track that one down someday...

Anonymous said...

I agree as you say that the earlier productions are more poetic (in fact his greatest film of all is his second film in this series, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942)which is both literary and elegant) and GHOST SHIP gain broaches a similar theme as all the others: the conflict of the powers of reason struggling against the powers of the unknown. I'll agree that the middle section is problematic, and there is a marked absence in the film of Lewton's characteristically bleak metaphysical touches, yet the film is taut, chilling and superbly acted by Richard Dix and Russell Wade. They both seem to ably negotiate the Hitchcockian elements surrounding guilt quite compellingly. I think we can safely assume that Lweton's early days with Orson Welles informed his use of low-angled, steam and mist filled set ups, and the film does evince a stylistic fluidity, which is absent in some of the more literary films.
I also think Lewton uses the transitional images well here (with shots of the Finn), which recall the similar use of the statue in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.
After ZOMBIE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM, THE BODY SNATCHER and perhaps CAT PEOPLE, GHOST SHIP, despite some of the admittedly heavy-handed pounding of the "philosophical and moral beats" you mention in the center section, would rank next in pre-eminence, which all things considered isn't bad at all.
Too bad the film was hit with a lawsuit and was unavailable to be seen for many years.

Magnificent review!