Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Ghost Ship (RKO, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Ghost Ship, the most rarely seen of Val Lewton’s RKO productions from 1942 to 1946 because of a plagiarism suit filed against Lewton and RKO by playwrights Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, who claimed the film was based on a play they had written and offered to Lewton’s unit. RKO’s legal department worked out a settlement for a few hundred dollars — Golding and Faulkner were nuisance claimants well known to RKO and the other majors, and the RKO lawyers figured it was worth paying them a small amount just to go away — but Lewton, incensed that anyone was questioning the originality of one of his scripts, refused to cooperate and insisted on taking the case to trial. Lewton and the studio unexpectedly lost the case, and not only was RKO stuck with a $25,000 verdict but the film became legally unshowable for over 50 years. The director was Mark Robson, former editor whom Lewton had promoted to director (sacrificing a chance to move up to “A”-level budgets in the process) and who had just made his debut with The Seventh Victim, my personal favorite of Lewton’s RKO films. The Ghost Ship was his second outing for the Lewton unit, and he mentioned the film in passing in his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for The Celluloid Muse. About all he had to say was a rather defensive comment that The Ghost Ship “was not based on Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, nor was it similar” — which was perhaps more legal C.Y.A. since at the time The Ghost Ship was made the rights to The Sea Wolf were owned by Warner Bros., and the legal trouble RKO had had with Samuel Golding and Norbert Faulkner was nothing compared to the holocaust Jack Warner’s legal department could have inflicted on them. Actually The Ghost Ship probably seems familiar only because there’s a generic similarity to all stories about crews trapped at sea with crazy captains, which is what this is, and had RKO’s legal department thought of the obvious antecedents that were already in the public domain by 1943, like Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, they might have won the case.

The Ghost Ship begins in typical Lewton style — the first thing we see and hear is a blind street singer (Alec Craig) doing the old sea shanty “Blow the Man Down.” He accosts a young man named Tom Merriam (Russell Wade), saying that just from the sound of his footsteps as he heads towards the dock that he’s a sailor shipping out, and and the hard thump his suitcase makes on the ground indicates that he’s an officer (an ordinary sailor would be carrying a soft bag instead). Merriam duly reports for duty aboard the S.S. Altair, commanded by Will Stone (Richard Dix), who seems not only to be an eminently rational and qualified captain but to take a special liking to Merriam and regard him as a sort of protégé. However, we get dire warnings — first from an echoey voiceover by a mute character called Finn (played by Skelton Knaggs, the marvelous character actor who would later shine in some of RKO’s Dick Tracy “B”’s) and then from Merriam’s shock when he finds that his berth on the ship contains a bed previously occupied by his predecessor, who died suddenly under mysterious circumstances — that all is not what it seems. Captain Stone is always sounding off about “authority” and the need to maintain it on board ship, and Merriam — who’s nicknamed “Tertius” (since he’s the ship’s third officer and “Tertius” is Latin for “third”) by the ship’s radioman, Jacob “Sparks” Winslow (Edmund Glover) — starts getting suspicious.

In one of the film’s shock scenes, Stone insists that a giant hook be allowed to swing freely across the ship’s deck even though it’s a danger to the lives and limbs of the sailors beneath it. “Shouldn’t we fasten that hook?” Merriam asks, and Stone takes that as a challenge to his authority and goes ballistic over it, saying that no one dares challenge a ship’s captain in front of other crew members. The incidents pile up to the point where when the ship briefly docks — and we meet the one woman in the dramatis personae, Stone’s fiancée Ellen Roberts (Edith Barrett) — Merriam files an official complaint against Stone. But when his complaint is heard, all the other crew members line up behind their captain. Now Merriam is not only a pariah on board but he realizes that Stone is probably going to target him next for elimination — especially when he finds that Stone has received a telegram asking if Merriam is on board and has drafted a response that says he isn’t. Later Merriam gets another draft telegram from Stone, who orders him to go to the radio room and send it, and when Merriam asks why “Sparks” isn’t being asked to do this, Stone tells him to read the message — which says that “Sparks” just met his death by going overboard. This finally awakens the other crew members’ eyes to the danger they’re in from the crazy captain, and not surprisingly it’s Finn who acts as a mute ex machina, grabs the pointy object with which Stone was going to murder Merriam, and kills Stone instead.

It’s not much of a story (the official credits list Leo Mittler for the “original” story and Donald Henderson Clarke for the script), and one could tell why the jury thought it was a plagiarism — it does really seem like you’ve seen it all before — but as with most of Lewton’s films, his atmospherics, Robson’s taut direction (he’s particularly good at making inanimate objects like that hook, and the long chain that later crushes an inconvenient crew member, come alive on screen), Nicholas Musuraca’s chiaroscuro cinematography and Roy Webb’s surprisingly dissonant music (Webb’s rediscovery has been hampered by the fact that a fire at his home destroyed a lot of his scores, but enough reconstructions are trickling out to raise this RKO house guy’s level to that of a lot of other, better known Hollywood composers) make this film work even though a lot of Lewton’s other films (the two Cat Peoples, I Walked With a Zombie, the awesome The Seventh Victim and the final trilogy with Boris Karloff: The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam) have more to offer because their stories are richer and deeper. Perhaps the biggest surprise in The Ghost Ship is how strongly it anticipates a crazy-captain story filmed a decade later, The Caine Mutiny — another tale in which the story unfolds from the perspective of a junior officer who’s initially impressed by his ship’s spit-and-polish captain before he gradually realizes that the man is crazy — though, pace Mark Robson, there are also intimations of The Sea Wolf (especially Robert Rossen’s adaptation for the 1940 Warners film) in Stone’s quasi-fascist rhetoric about “authority” and how a few men are born to lead while others are born to follow.

The Ghost Ship is also a film that suffers more than usual from Lewton’s budgetary limitations and particularly from the sort of cast available to him. Star-on-the-downgrade Richard Dix is actually superb in his role — arguably better than either Edward G. Robinson in the 1940 Sea Wolf or Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny because he plays far more subtly, limning the captain’s descent into madness with much more understated acting — especially in his confrontation with Merriam, where Merriam accuses him of “raving and ranting” when it’s actually Merriam who is raising his voice, while Stone is saying outrageous things (“I’ve never felt more sane in my life than I do at this moment. … Who’s crazy? You, who defied me and are helpless? Or I, who control your destiny and the destiny of the Altair and all the lives on board?”) in a quiet, well-modulated, even-tempered tone of voice. The film also benefits from calypso singer Sir Lancelot — in his second of three films for Lewton, and once again treated in a way that reflects Lewton’s extraordinary sensitivity and sympathy towards people of color — and a marvelous performance by Dewey Robinson as Stone’s straw boss “Boats” (Robinson looks and sounds so much like the young Broderick Crawford that through most of the movie I thought it was he). But the rest of the cast ­— especially Russell Wade (who admittedly in the battle of the nice-young-men-in-crazy-captain-movies is up against John Garfield in the 1940 Sea Wolf) — is barely competent. The film’s “B” budget affects it in other ways, too; the ship sets were recycled (from Orson Welles’ 1942 thriller Journey Into Fear and, even before that, the 1938 RKO film Pacific Liner) and a lot of the footage of the ship moving through the seas is stock (including one clip from King Kong which was apparently “flipped” left-to-right so audiences wouldn’t notice that the ship name on it is Venture, not Altair). It’s an interesting movie, and it probably looks better than it is simply because it was withdrawn from circulation for so long and thus achieved scarcity value, but Lewton made better movies both before and after this one.