|The Ghost Ship (1943)
Run time: Approved | 69 min | Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Mark Robson
Writers: Donald Henderson Clarke, Leo Mittler
Stars: Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett
An offbeat Val Lewton melodrama about a power-crazy ship captain who’s obsessed with “authority”. An absorbing mood-piece with successful eeriness.
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The title of this film is misleading as it implies a ghost story…..but of course, it isn't. In fact it isn't even a horror film in the general sense. It is more a psychological thriller, surrounding the personality of the ship's captain, played by that old war horse, Richard Dix. And he does a terrific job of letting the viewer glimpse the madness beneath his controlled exterior. His byword is "authority" and he goes to unbelievable lengths to assert that authority.
Russell Wade, with whom I am unfamiliar, plays the Third Officer, who sees through the captain in short order and vainly attempts to convince the crew of Dix's insanity……but to no avail. The only person who is aware of the problem is a mute played by probably one of the most unattractive and busiest character players in Hollywood, Skelton Knaggs and he becomes somewhat of a hero in the final few minutes of the film. Edith Barrett, who was used by Lewton in other films, makes a limited appearance as the captain's inamorata. Look for Lawrence Tierney, future Hollywood bad boy, as a target of the captain's revenge.
Val Lewton was the master of atmospheric films made on a limited budget and he doesn't miss with this one. It's a dandy!!
This was pretty good entry in the Val Lewton Horror Collection, even though it's anything but "horror." This film is a straight drama, almost a film noir about a paranoid sea captain (Richard Dix) who eliminates anyone who disagrees with his "authority," a key word in this movie.
Russell Wade is the captain's protégé, and the story really centers around him and the conflict he has with his boss after he begins to find out what a violent nutcase he happens to be. Along the way, it was noteworthy to see Lawrence Tierney play one of the captain's victims.
Also good was Jacob "Sparks" Winslow as the ship's radio operator. This is an involving film as we root for Wade to expose this captain and to convince others that the man with the "authority" is an evil person.
Tom Merriam takes a job as the Third Officer on the cargo ship The Altair. Despite a strange interaction with a blind man in port, things look good for Tom as the ship appears good and the Captain is amiable enough. Finding that his bed is still a mess from when the last Third died there is a little disturbing but he gets past it and begins to work. When the Captain puts lives at risk rather than be seen to have his authority questioned by Merriam, Tom starts to worry that the Captain is living within his own head too much a worry reinforced when more men and put at risk and deaths are caused; but how can he change things? Apparently commissioned because RKO had an expensive ship set knocking around that they wanted to get more use out of, this film is surprisingly enjoyable and works because it tries to shun melodrama and be something much more interesting. This is not to say it totally does this, because it doesn’t, but it does have plenty of good things about it. The story is fairly standard in appearance but the Captain’s "madness" is convincing and realistic he is not a gibbering loon but rather a man who appears to have lost touch with reality thanks to a lonely and sad life to date. Within this story the script develops the characters well so that they rise above being the stock figures of b-movie fare. With a low key story, the production still really goes for it on atmosphere and produces an air of foreboding and menace that is present from the very start. Shadows are well used, fog drifts over the decks and the music is constantly moving darkly in the background menacing without ever being overused or overbearing.
The cast do very well with this product. Wade was surprisingly good in the lead and it made me wonder why I have never knowingly seen him in anything else. He was a pretty regular guy and came off natural rather than being the square-jawed hero that is often the norm. He plays second fiddle to Dix though, who sets up a strangely friendly character who convincingly moves into a sort of madness that is convincing. He avoids being a monster and naturally questions himself while also producing a character that we feel for Dix is not just a "baddie" to Wade’s "goodie". Barrett is so-so but the film didn’t need her and her scene slows the film by taking it off the ship albeit briefly. Support is good from Glover, Overall an enjoyable film that produces the goods on many levels and is much better than I thought it was going to be. The plot seems simple but the writing respect the audience and makes the story more interesting than the usual goodie/baddie fare. The atmospheric and tense production only helps to produce a punchy, mysterious film that is well worth seeing even if the ending needed to be a bit stronger and darker but this is a minor flaw.
This Val Lewton produced film is not what one would likely expect from the title: a ghost story…so don’t expect that going in. It isn’t even really an Horror film per se although there are elements at work here which will prove horrific to many viewers. What it is instead is a seafaring adventure yarn about a Captain who’s slowly going mad (and homicidal) due to his obsession with authority and only our heroic lead Tom Merriam, the 3rd Officer, seems to want to do anything about it. Everyone else seems to either not believe Merriam or dismisses what he tells them for fear of losing their jobs. Merriam however retains his values and ethics throughout the film even when they don’t work out in his favor. While the film possesses the mood and style one expects from Lewton’s films, the content and in some cases atmosphere is really not what one expects from the producer. Also events here do seem to wrap themselves up much too quickly. Still all in all there’s enough good stuff here that this film is definitely worth seeking out.