Val Lewton, best known for the horror movies he produced, was not limited to that genre, and produced western, romance, comedy and this movie, a psychological thriller. Though The Ghost Ship has no apparitions or white sheeted ghosts, what it lacks in poltergeists it more than makes up for in chills and haunting moments, presenting the scary portrait of a man with a God complex and complete power over his crew, a type of monster you’re far more likely to encounter in everyday life.
Richard Dix, the silent and early talkie movie hunk and matinee idol is seen here in his later years, stockier and weathered, playing a sea captain for whom authority is all. He sees himself as more than simply a man in charge. He believes he owns those he is sworn to protect, and that, if he’s big enough to give them everything they need, he’s also big enough to take from them everything they have. Onto this ship comes the new, green officer, an idealistic, impossibly youthful, impressionable and handsome younger version of the captain, played by Russell Wade. Wade is a serious youth, eager to earn, trusting and intently listening, but always with a slight confusion at Dix’s comments and odd demeanor.
As the plot unfolds, Dix reveals himself not as the caring father figure who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly, but as a spiteful, petty, arrogant and dangerous (but well-disguised) madman. Dix is creepy without raving, remaining mostly calm, insistently asserting his theories, then telling you with a smile that of course you agree with him, you must. He spouts his wisdom but when others confront him, he’s not fully present or listening. He’s detached, lost in his own interpretations and judgments on the speaker. More than once, Dix tells underlings who dare to challenge him: “there are *some* Captains who would hold this against you.” Not him, mind you, no never, or so he says, before pretending to snap you in half like the pencil he’s holding, and plots how best to murder you.
At first Wade trusts his captain blindly, mistaking his every statement for lessons of experience, but his trust is tempered by the radio operator, who warns: “there’s a friendliness that tries to get you to thinking wrong.” The leader acting as a friend will generally be more popular, though he might not want the best for you, than the authority figure who seems austere, mean and tough but is truly looking out for your best interests. Like many who are all smooth talk, actions belie the grand words. During an emergency appendectomy Dix is frozen with a “fear of failure” most unbecoming of a leader, but for some it’s optimal to do nothing than to risk the wrong decision and its consequences. Wade steps in, does the surgery and initially agrees to cover up, humbly refusing to take credit. However when he suspects Dix has murdered an outspoken sailor (Lawrence Tierney), Wade becomes the sole voice of warning, speaking out to an unbelieving group about their dangerous commander. Then he’s accused of “starting trouble” in the western movie sense, as when the lawman finally comes along who dares to upset the fragile but phony “peace” based on the victims knowing their place, biting their tongue and maintaining the status quo. That’s easier than standing as Wade does, for what’s right at cost of popularity, job, fortune or even his life. To the comfortably oppressed, the one who refuses to compromise seems to be the one making impossible and inconvenient demands on your courage.
The contrast between the men’s character is further highlighted through Dix’s girlfriend, played by Edith Barrett, an actress who was then married to Vincent Price. Price’s hit movie Laura came out a few months after The Ghost Ship, but while his career was nicely taking off, Edith’s, which had been fruitful and celebrated on the stage, had declined since her arrival in Hollywood, with diminishing roles in Ladies in Retirement, Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie, Jane Eyre and The Ghost Ship. The couple divorced in 1948, and the alcohol addiction and mental issues that caused problems in their marriage plagued Edith for the rest of her life. In The Ghost Ship she plays a long-suffering but loyal woman who’s been waiting for years on a divorce so she can be with Dix. She’s his one redeeming quality, his one human credential, so when he pushes her away, choosing the ship instead, he’s severed his last connection to normalcy. This, combined with the arrival of his younger version Wade, and the increasing challenges to his authority, cause Dix to snap.
Barrett tells Wade he’s just like Dix, obsessed with stubbornly asserting authority and being right, and advises him against emulating his captain any further. The key, she says, is to find love and other interests that will anchor him to reality and humanity. Otherwise, she says, he’ll be doomed (like Dix) to lead a ghost-like existence and a ghost ship. She’s got it mostly right, but authority alone isn’t the problem. Authority, like money or a gun, is never bad in itself, and used more often than not for noble purposes; it’s the character of the person using those tools that determines the quality and effects of their use. And while it’s true that Wade could pass for another Dix, he distinguishes himself as a virtuous and proper handler of authority. Consider the men’s last argument: the crazy, power mad captain sees people as worthless, inhuman cattle to be herded, while the born leader Wade believes people are good and valuable individuals, not to be bullied but helped to think for themselves and understand their roles. He never lets go of this faith, even as everyone doubts and shuns him, and he seems totally alone.
A study on the use and abuse of power filmed on a limited set could’ve been painfully slow but moves fast thanks to good filmmaking and some nice performances. It was Mark Robson’s very first job as director; in the two years before this debut, he’d impressed Lewton with his editing work on Cat People and worked with the producer on several more pictures before moving onto much bigger things, directing many actors toward Oscar nominations, and fine movies like Champion, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Peyton Place and The Harder They Fall.
Lewton’s signature approach of doing more with less is one that remains effective and looks less dated than clearly exposed gore and graphic representation. He had cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca along for this cruise, and the DP provided his usual dramatic and spooky lighting. Musuraca, born in Italy in 1892, started as chauffeur for silent movie innovator J. Stuart Blackton, a prolific and groundbreaking director, producer, animator in the early days of film. Musuraca worked his way through all things photographic, toiling as projectionist, editor, and assistant director at New York’s Vitagraph films, and in Hollywood with the company that became RKO in 1928, remaining there as DP, and being highly influential in the noir look. He was great at creating contrast between darkness and light, rich shadows and well lit faces, all of which are really evident here in many well composed shots and tricks of light: when Wade booby traps his cabin and keeps peering out into the hall; when Dix stares at his eerily lit, sweaty messy reflection in the sign “Who Does Not Heed The Rudder Shall Meet The Rock;” and the end scene, when Wade walks off screen and we see his shadowy silhouette meeting Barrett’s sister. He leaves with her, and the doomed relationship between Barrett and the Captain is thus restarted to play out properly.
The music by Roy Webb is similarly minimalist and subtle. Webb was a talented artist and painter, raised on opera, classically trained, and wrote music for stage musicals before being hired by RKO, where he stayed until the 50s. He scored over 300 movies, including Notorious, Crossfire, Clash by Night, The Window, and Marty. Webb was especially hailed for his creepy work on Val Lewton’s horror movies, but here the music is spare, the soundtrack mostly made up of folk songs. It’s a juxtaposition that makes the climactic knife fight extra tense and creepy, for a simple tune goes on while the movie’s monster captain quietly struggles for his life in a small cabin against two men who can’t make a sound.
The silent one who believes and helps Wade in this last fight is the scraggly, craggy Skelton Knaggs, as a mute who has much to say about the proceedings through a voice over monologue, safe to express the truth because no one can hear him. He sees all, knows all and peels potatoes like nobody’s business, with a fearsome knife you’re meant to notice over and over in an obvious case of foreshadowing. There’s a similar character on shore who bookends the story, a blind “seer” who warns Wade that the Altair’s a bad ship and “there’s nothing but bad luck at sea.”
It’s fun to see Lawrence Tierney in such an early role, as the doomed sailor who gets crushed by the anchor chain. Tierney’s nothing like the intimidating figure he was to become in later noirs; still skinny, fresh-faced and at times silly, he’s a comical wise guy and sympathetic victim. Tierney was seen much more after The Ghost Ship, while the pleasant leading man, Russell Wade, was to be seen much less. He’d worked his way through movies mostly uncredited, and Lewton used him in The Leopard Man and The Body Snatcher, but by the end of the 1940’s Wade retired from film, shifting his attention to real estate, designing a country club and chairing what would later be known as the Bob Hope Classic Golf Tournament.
Seen even less than Wade was the movie itself. Writer Donald Henderson Clarke, whose works had been adapted into the films Female, The Housekeeper’s Daughter, among others, had for The Ghost Ship adapted a treatment by Viennese screenwriter Leo Mittler, who in turn was working from Lewton’s idea. Here’s where the movie, despite being a box office hit, ran into problems that would keep it unseen for decades to come. Val Lewton, as usual for his movies, wrote much of the dialogue, and claimed the story was his idea, one inspired by RKO giving him the ship set and telling him to do something with it. After the movie came out though, playwrights Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner sued, saying they had sent Lewton a similar story and he’d plagiarized it for the movie. They won, Lewton and RKO lost the rights, and audiences lost sight of The Ghost Ship for almost 50 years. Good thing it’s easier to find now, showing often on TCM and available on DVD.
This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen aka Classic Movie Man & Kristina of the Speakeasy blog – see more posts at either Classic Movie Man’s Lewton page or the Speakeasy Lewton page