The Ghost Ship (1943)

D: Mark Robson
S: Richard Dix, Russell Wade

Low-budget maritime drama with naive young officer Russell Wade facing off against obsessive captain Richard Dix on a fateful, murderous voyage. The film, from a script by novelist Donald Henderson Clarke, generates dramatic ripples which can be seen in later films including The Caine Mutiny and High Noon, although here they are mostly used for more simplistic narrative ends. Wade is initially in awe of the authoritative Dix, who seems to run his ship with a fastidious concern for efficiency and safety. Yet when his speeches tend towards the manic, Wade begins to wonder. As the voyage continues, the small signs of megalomania add up to a dangerous lunacy, and Wade becomes convinced that Dix has murdered a crewman who was disrespectful to him. When Wade tries to bring the case to the shipping company, he finds all of his shipmates have turned against him and will not speak on his behalf. Isolated and vulnerable, he is forced to ride out the rest of the voyage in terror of Dix' revenge, desperate to find allies, but finding only closed doors and skeptical incredulity.

Released in the same year as I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man, The Ghost Ship boasts of the distinctive quality low-budget look and feel of all Lewton's productions of the era. Less classy than the earlier Cat People, less dreamy than I Walked With a Zombie, the film nonetheless goes for an atmosphere of suspense and paranoia which makes use of the limited budget and poor lighting for dramatic effect. Though largely effective in this respect (with one exciting scene involving a swinging anchor and at least one horrific moment where a man is buried in chains (echoes of later scenes in Dario Argento films come to mind)), the script suffers from a mixture of ambitions. When working at its most basic level, pitting man in jeopardy against sinister forces of villainy and apathy, the film works well. When trying to cast some complexion on events with a bizarre sub-plot involving Edith Barrett as an acquaintance of the captain, it falters. Also less than successful is an attempt at portent involving mute sailor Skelton Knaggs, whose inner voice directs the audience to expect ghastly goings-on in the early stages in what seems an attempt to capture some of I Walked With a Zombie's otherworldly ambiance.

Dix is effective as the villainous captain. He plays the role largely without exaggeration, convincingly portraying a man whose insanity is deeply rooted but invisible even to himself. He is able to carry off the initial scenes of slightly stuffy mentor well, and it is not difficult to believe that the crewmen who are not confronted with his fascistic speeches about 'authority' and his superior rights over lesser men would believe him to be a kindly and efficient captain. Wade is reasonable enough in the classic innocent-in-jeopardy role, and the script is brave enough to let him empathise with and admire his nemesis early on in the story, allowing us to draw comparisons between their behaviours and assess their relevant concepts of honour and duty. Dix does become a tad melodramatic in the later scenes, and the story is pushed to its limits by some strange twists including Dix' insistence that Wade go out among the crew and look for others who will join the third officer in condemning him. The entire thing wraps pretty quickly too, after a fairly well sustained suspense scene where Wade waits at night in his bunk for Dix' attack and reacts to every creak and squeak on the ship. Rather than a sustained High Noon type confrontation, the film opts for a short, sharp, violent brawl which ends as soon as it begins while leaving room for a silly happy ending.

For a film with modest ambitions and an ever more modest budget, The Ghost Ship is reasonably accomplished. Director Mark Robson would go on from here to more generously-appointed programmers including Von Ryan's Express and Earthquake. Lewton had already made his greatest contributions to low-budget cinema, but his distinctive style would become a cornerstone of 1940s American low-budget cinema. This is a film for movie buffs and late-night aficionados which will offer those of right mind to enjoy it pleasures enough to make it worthwhile for the hour or so that it runs.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.