As we have pointed out in this space already, thanks to the massive success of his Cat People, producer Val Lewton had a reasonably free hand to make movies the way he wanted in his RKO horror unit, with the major exception of titles: he was given titles and had to make a movie that fit the title, and that was that. He would occasionally push back a little, but the 1943 Christmas release The Ghost Ship is something else entirely: not only is it pointedly different from any film you'd be apt to associate with that title, it's so far afield, and requires so much convolution to justify its title in the form of a peculiar metaphor, that it almost seems like Lewton was flaunting the expectations of his superiors out of spite. Which may, in fact, have been the case: as this film entered production, Lewton was under increasing pressure to make a sequel to Cat People that he was disinterested in, and his general feeling that RKO was trying to second-guess him too much - a feeling that has been suggested as an influence for The Ghost Ship's plot - may have led him to be contrary just for the sake of it.

Whatever did it, I'm glad it happened, because the film that resulted is a pretty terrific thriller, with just a couple of flaws keeping it from reaching the level of Cat People or The Seventh Victim, while continuing the tradition of Lewton's production unit of seriously challenging the norms of what "horror cinema" could contain in the 1940s. If, indeed, The Ghost Ship still qualifies as horror at all; and on this I have my doubts. It's a sharp psychological thriller, all right, with an impressively ambiguous mystery about whether or not the captain of a ship is a mad killer; but it does not approach this subject in any way that fits in with the uncanny or inexplicable or alien. It is, in fact, the most prosaic of all nine "horror" films that Lewton produced for RKO; no less good for being prosaic, of a certainty. And the fact that it's so hard to slot it into horror in any meaningful way is a sign of how flexible and solid the Lewton unit's craftsmanship was at this point, at the end of its second (and fullest) year of existence, that a movie this different from anything they'd made before could still feel so much of a piece with the four movies preceding it.

(Incidentally, the film was very nearly lost: a couple of months after its premiere, writers Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner sued RKO claiming that the idea had been stolen. The suit was decided in the writers' favor, and the film was removed from circulation for over a half-century. But other than as a piece of trivia, we needn't be terribly concerned with this story at such a long historical remove).

Despite being filmed and released in '43, my suspicion is that the film takes place somewhat earlier; the setting is a merchant navy vessel, and only once in the film is there even the tiniest scrap of a hint that there's a war going on, particularly a war that involved naval combat to such a pronounced degree. But that's a matter for nitpicking, not reviewing, and the point is: young merchant marine office Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) has just taken a posting as third officer on the Altair, captained by Will Stone (Richard Dix). Before he even lays eyes on the vessel, Merriam has already been warned off by a blind ex-sailor (Alec Craig) who does a Sherlock Holmes on the kid, correctly identifying his age, rank, and destination just by sound, and assuring him that the Altair is a cursed ship.

It's not - and nobody after the blind beggar ever suggests it is, either, because that would possibly motivate the title - but something is not quite right anyway. Captain Stone, though a pleasant, even avuncular man in the privacy of his cabin (in his first scene, he gently censures Merriam against killing an innocent moth, and promises with a beaming smile that he likes to be good friends with all his crew - this forms a crucial first impression for the audience as a generally likable sort, which makes the subsequent developments all the harder to process easily), is a bit obsessed with keeping a tight, clean ship, and with maintaining his authority in all ways at all times. With a warm, knowing tone that makes even the most deranged things to come out of his mouth seems sensible, he tells Merriam that, because he is responsible for the lives of the men on his ship, he also has the right to expend their lives as he sees fit, and he sees fit to risk the safety of the crew in some awfully strange places: the first inkling that Merriam gets that all is not well on the Altair comes when a freshly-painted cargo hook is allowed to flail all over the deck, coming close to injuring a number of crewman, all because Stone refused to allow it to be tied down until the paint was dry. When called on this, he not only justifies himself but even manages to turn responsibility back on Merriam.

The second big incident that puts Merriam on edge is when Stone proves unable to operate on a crewman, Peter the Greek (Paul Marion), with a burst appendix, forcing the third officer to perform the task himself; this, too finds its justification in Stone's warped authoritarian worldview. The breaking point comes when another crewman, Louie Parker (Lawrence Tierney), who had earlier called one of Stone's orders slightly into question, is crushed to death by the anchor chain, having been locked in the room where the chain is fed into, any screams of terror or pain more than hidden by the hideously loud clank of metal on metal. There's no actual evidence that Stone knew Parker was in the locker when he shut and locked the door; but there's certainly evidence that he had, shortly before, said words to the seaman that could readily be construed as threatening, and Merriam finally breaks: Stone, he believes, is either incompetent, a deliberate murderer, or both, and needs to be stopped. Unfortunately, his effort to do so through proper channels goes emphatically awry, serving only to bring the third officer's suspicions to the captain's attention, and though Merriam and Stone agree that it's best for the young man to sever his relationship with the Altair at the very next port, a stroke of bad luck puts Merriam right back onboard, with Stone attempting to comfort him in the same words he said to Parker just before his death: "You know, there are some captains who would hold this against you." Oh, there undoubtedly are.

At 69 deliciously streamlined minutes, The Ghost Ship has no time for bullshit, and it pushes through its program of paranoia, ominous half-threats, and the dawning terror of being stuck on a vessel in the middle of the ocean with a man who has a pridefully-stated lack of concern about the safety of his crew's lives in the best-case scenario. Whether or not credited scenarist Leo Mittler and writer Donald Henderson Clarke stole the idea or not, the execution of the script, now that's all on Clarke's shoulders, and it is damn magnificent: the way that each scene exposes just a little more of what's going on, with a concomitant spike in tension, the way that the crisp dialogue is used to imply character without giving away the game until quite a long way in whether Stone is actually evil or just stupendously over-impressed with his rank; even the way that the plot's one lengthy digression, to show the relationship between Stone and his lover, Ellen Roberts (Edith Barrett) - the only woman seen onscreen in the whole picture - manages to increase the depth of a character that, till now, we have only seen filtered through Merriam's perspective, both humanising him and increasing out sense that something is seriously wrong with his head. It's not an airtight screenplay - there is too much time given over to the mute crewman Finn (Skelton Knaggs), who speaks in whispery, poetic voiceover that does not fit in with the rest of the film even a little bit, and generally serves to jam the momentum to a screeching halt every time we see him, the kind of little flaw that magnifies every time it shows up and eventually becomes quite a legitimate problem. But it's still one of the most structurally precise screenplays that the Lewton unit ever filmed, and for that, my hat is off.

And not just structurally, but psychologically: the showdown between Stone and Merriam involves two of the most realistically drawn personalities in the entire cycle, and with both of them various degrees of obsessed or mad, it doesn't break into a simplistic "good vs. bad" situation, but finds reasons for us to be fascinated by, and invested in, the character and mindset of both men. Not to mention that the theme of authority run amok, in addition to supplying The Ghost Ship with a fine human conflict as its centerpiece, marks the film as an object of its time in an unusually forthright way: after all, the callous, arbitrary abuse of power could only really refer to one particular man in 1943, and while I will certainly stop short of proposing that Stone is a metaphor for Adolf Hitler - there is no trace of such political engagement anywhere else in Lewton's output - the, let us say, sympathetic relationship of the two authoritarians gives The Ghost Ship an extra layer of intensity and meaning.

Which isn't to say that the film's quality is all in the writing: Mark Robson, directing his second Lewton production, and Nicholas Musuraca, shooting his third, do an exemplary job of shooting RKO's standing ship set - the set whose existence was the inspiration for Lewton to do this project in the first place, knowing that he'd get more bang for his buck if he could avoid spending hardly any money on sets - with a maximum of the gloomy chiaroscuro atmosphere that was the calling card of a Lewton film by this point in 1943. It's not as lusciously velvet as the more straight-up horror films, certainly, nor is it as harsh and punishing as the early noirs of the same period. I suppose the best way to describe is that it's realism with just enough of an Expressionist flair to keep us in mind that this is ultimately a subjective mood piece, that we're ultimately being yoked to Merriam's beliefs and fears, and as he grows increasingly concerned, the film crows increasingly foreboding (though I can do nothing, on this line of reasoning, with the film's beautiful but stylistically inexplicable final shot, which in all ways seems more nihilistic than the film wants it to be). Right up until the film's violent finale, showcasing an amount of blood that is downright shocking for a 1943 film, the last sucker punch of a movie that has done such an extraordinary job to that point of confronting us with escalating proof of man's barbarism and petty cruelty. It's an unsparing and even mean film made exciting to watch by virtue of its excellent thriller mechanics, adopting the language of atmospheric horror into a more straightforward study of survival and madness with strong, if not precisely revelatory results.

Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)