Wednesday, July 10, 2013

THE GHOST SHIP (1943)

You think Lt. Commander Queeg made life on the USS Caine intense?  Allow me to introduce you to Capt. Will Stone of the cargo ship Altair. Crewmen have a habit of dying under his command, and not in acts of war. Stone is in fact, to quote Third Officer Tom Merriam, "a homicidal maniac!" And you thought fantasizing about stolen strawberries was cause for mutiny.

One of the several classy B-movie thrillers produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio, The Ghost Ship delivers the goods for its entire 69-minute running time. From the opening scene, where even a blind man warns that no good can come of sailing on the Altair, to its startlingly bloody climax, The Ghost Ship is one more example of how Lewton's "little" B's managed to outshine the A's they ran with in theaters. 


Newly-hired Officer Tom Merriam initially admires the fatherly Capt. Stone. Stone has a gentle voice, a firm but decent way of commanding a ship and a knack for zen-like aphorisms like, "You have no right to kill that
"This is your Captain speaking.
 I'm going to kill you in five minutes."
moth. Its safety doesn't depend on you."  But as days past, Merriam comes to realize that there's a dark side to the Captain. Like when Stone arranges for the "accidental" death of a crew member he doesn't particularly care for. And thanks to Stone's otherwise placid demeanor -- along with the respect accorded to his rank -- the crew ignores Merriam's warnings.  It's only when the radioman stumbles upon proof of Stone's plan to murder Merriam -- and pays for it by being thrown overboard -- does the anybody start to wake up.
That hook is up to no good.
The hallmark of Lewton's movies is atmosphere.  Long shadows, foggy evenings, eerie footsteps -- it doesn't matter who the director is (in this case, Mark Robson), Val Lewton's fingerprints are all over his productions, and The Ghost Ship is no exception. Consider it an oceanic film noir, where even a dangling hook seems to come alive, ready to kill at the Captain's orders.

Great characters abound. Capt. Stone, of course, dominates the movie, rarely raising his voice yet terrifying nonetheless. At times, he doesn't even need to speak; the casual way he arranges for one of the seamen to get crushed to death by an anchor chain is truly chilling. Yet, unlike many
Capt. Stone makes his point quite clear.
actors of his time might have done, Richard Dix gives Stone depth and a little empathy. Stopping in port, he refuses the proposals of a woman who's loved him 15 years with little to show in return. Stone has his reasons -- he knows, even confesses, that a lifetime at sea is making him insane yet appears to be powerless to do anything about it. At the same time, his crew obeys his every word because... well, Stone puts it best while holding Merriam at gunpoint, his voice barely above a whisper:

I'm Captain. And as long as I wear these stripes, there isn't a man in the crew that'll believe you or help you. You'll find them too lazy, too cowardly. Too disinterested. That's what I want you to learn, Merriam. Men are worthless cattle. And a few men are given authority to drive them. 

"Authority" -- that's the word that Stone uses over and over, at times like a prayer, at others a deadly threat, always caressing it like rosary beads. And yet, his nasty description of the crew is pretty much on the money. They are disinterested in hearing about Merriam's take on Stone, too cowardly to question the man with stripes on his uniform, too psychologically lazy to investigate the living evil that haunts their ship. The Ghost Ship is an allegory on power that goes unchecked until it's almost too late, whether at sea, in the workplace or the political world.

Richard Dix is no joke.
Richard Dix, remembered even less now than he was when mentioned as a joke in Blazing Saddles, gives an understated, frightening performance, his eyes conveying emotions almost too painful to contemplate. That he really does look like a weather-beaten sea captain rather than a movie star -- it's shocking he was only 50 at the time -- makes him all the more convincing. A pity Alfred Hitchcock never got to work with him; Dix could have easily played Joseph Cotten's role in Shadow of a Doubt, another 1943 picture about a guy with a decidedly cynical view of mankind.

"Skelton Knaggs" is not
a declarative sentence.
You can always count on fine character actors in Lewton movies, and The Ghost Ship has a shipful of them. In addition to Dix, there's Skelton Knaggs, a Brit whose scarred, pockmarked face is as unique as his name. Although his character, Finn, is a mute, his thoughts are heard throughout the movie, something of a Cockney Greek chorus. He's the only other person onboard who appears to believe that Stone is a little, well, off his nut, and becomes Merriam's guardian angel over time.

"Just wait 'til I pack on another 100 pounds.
Then I'll  really kick your ass."
It took me at least 20 minutes to recognize the unbilled Lawrence Tierney as one of Stone's soon-to-be victims. Just a couple of years away from his run as RKO's resident psycho gangster, Tierney would later hit a long rough patch, thanks to his favorite hobbies of getting drunk and beating up cops. (During the 1970s, tourists in New York probably had no idea that the guy at the reins of their horse-drawn cab in Central Park was once one of the best bad guys in the movies.) He scored a late-in-life comeback as the gang leader in Reservoir Dogs, while Seinfeld fans may remember him as Elaine's menacing father. By then, the gruff, bald, hulking actor, unrecognizable from his RKO days, was 72 years old but more in demand -- and scarier -- than ever. Good for him.

Typical of posters of the time,
that woman on the right appears nowhere
in the movie.
For years, The Ghost Ship was something of a ghost movie, having been pulled from circulation shortly after its original 1943 release due to a plagiarism suit. Once in a while I'd read a rave review by someone lucky enough to score a pirated copy. By the time of its first legitimate appearance on DVD a few years ago, I was afraid that it was going to be one of those over-hyped "lost" movies that, once found, would prove to be a disappointment.

It wasn't. The Ghost Ship deserves to be ranked with The Body Snatcher, Cat People, The Seventh Victim and all the other classic Val Lewton productions. Its return is to be celebrated. And maybe make Richard Dix something other than a Mel Brooks punchline once again.


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