The Ghost Ship was the fifth successive low-budget “horror” film produced by Val Lewton in a short space of time, following The Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), and The Seventh Victim (1943). This was 29-year-old Mark Robson’s second directorial outing, coming immediately after his inaugural effort, The Seventh Victim. Like all of Lewton’s films, the horror element does not arise from any explicitly established supernatural element, but comes from the dark, unfathomable recesses of the human mind. And because of this, even though The Ghost Ship, like most of Lewton’s productions, has an exotic setting well beyond the shadows of the big-city streets, I would still classify it with the others as a film noir.
The story is set on a merchant ship, Altair, on which young marine officer Tom Merriam has just been given his first assignment as third officer to Captain Will Stone. Though Merriam is cheerful and optimistic, the prospects look ominous from the outset. Before boarding, Merriam hears a blind street singer comment that the ship is cursed, and then he meets a spooky-looking mute shipmate, Finn, whose voice-over comments predict that there will be deaths on the upcoming voyage. And like all of Lewton’s films, the low-key lighting, even in bright daylight, creates shadows and darkness that persistently permeate the mood.
Merriam is warmly welcomed by the friendly, civilized Captain Stone, who says he chose Merriam as third-mate, because he thinks they share a common background and can become close companions. Merriam is suitably impressed, but he soon discovers that the mild-mannered captain is in fact a rigid authoritarian. There is also some other disquieting news. When Merriam first enters the third mate’s cabin, he learns that his predecessor had only recently died from violent convulsions. Then another crew member is found dead. Maybe the ship really is cursed.
When another crew member complains that the ship should dock at the next port to fill out the crew, Captain Stone becomes angry at the insubordination and secretly causes the poor fellow to die in an accident. But Merriam discovers what happened, accuses the captain of murder, and files a formal protest at the ship’s next port of call, San Sebastian (a name of a fictitious Carribean port also used in I Walked With a Zombie). A hearing is held, but the crew, mindful of their lowly status and fearful of the captain’s malice, refuse to back up Merriam, and the case is dropped.
Assuming that he has been fired, Merriam disembarks from the ship, but he gets accidentally knocked out in a brawl and brought back on board the Altair as it sets out to sea. Now trapped with a vengeful, deranged captain, and a fearful crew that refuses even to talk to him, Merriam knows that he is a clay pigeon awaiting a fatal attack. His fears are multiplied when he discovers that the locks have been removed from his sleeping quarters cabin door and window.
When the ship’s radio operator, Sparks, is ordered to respond falsely to a query from the San Sebastian office about whether Merriam is on board, he finally sees Captain Stone’s perfidy and goes to show Merriam the untruthful response message. But Sparks was observed by Stone emerging from that meeting, and shortly thereafter he, too, is reported dead of an “accident”. Upon hearing this, Merriam assaults Stone, but he is restrained by the crew and ordered to be bound and gagged in his bunk and then sedated. Things are looking pretty grim for Merriam at this point.
However, the untruthful radio message is discovered by Finn and is passed to others. Meanwhile Captain Stone grabs a knife and goes to finish off Merriam, who is still bound and gagged in his bunk and powerless to defend himself. But Stone is caught in the act by Finn, and they engage in a ferocious fight, before Finn finally stabs Stone with his own knife.
As is customary with Lewton’s films, the acting in The Ghost Ship is emphatic and almost stereotyped. While this would be a drawback in a more conventional drama, it plays satisfactorily in the present fast-paced and film noir circumstances. One welcome contributor is Sir Lancelot, the famous calypso singer, who plays a ship’s crew member and who had also appeared effectively in I Walked With a Zombie.
On the surface, the story and film seem pretty routine, but there are some interesting elements that make it more memorable than one might have expected. Of particular significance are the five atmospheric scenes, almost set-pieces, that serve as anchoring points for the narrative and help establish lasting mental images in the viewer’s mind.
- Early on, there is a scene of a very heavy hoist hook on the ship that swings about dangerously, because it has not been tethered. The camera work and editing are excellent here, and the rough, dynamic conditions on board the ship are well presented by this single scene. The outcome of this scene is that it emphasizes the disconnect between Captain Stone’s neatnik fussiness and the realities of responsible ship management.
- Later, Captain Stone is called upon to perform an emergency appendectomy that is to be guided by remote medical advice provided over the ship’s radio. Stone freezes at the critical moment, and Merriam has to take over. The tension is built up in the scene by excellent shifting between various close-ups. Similar to a scene in which Captain Queeg panics inThe Caine Mutiny, this scene calls into question Stone’s professional equanimity and mental stability.
- The scene in which the crew member is buried and crushed by the heavy anchor chain is dynamic and brutal, with fast cuts between the panicking crew member and the oblivious sailors on deck feeding more chain into the chain portal. Stone’s calm when he locks the chain cabin door, thereby dooming the crew member, establishes Stone as a cold-blooded murderer.
- Still later, after Merriam had been unwittingly brought back to the departing ship following his failed complaint about Stone at the San Sebastian office, he is depicted in his cabin fearfully concerned that Stone might attack him in the night. Lewton’s films often have scenes like this in which the protagonist is alone and fearful of danger from the darkness. The tension is built up such that any stray noise can elicit a panicked alarm. In this case claustrophobia is added to the mix, as Merriam tries ineffectually to find a way of booby-trapping the cabin entrance. This eerie scene emphasizes Merriam’s precarious circumstances and helplessness.
- The final life-and-death struggle in Merriam’s cabin between the mute, Finn, and Stone is violent and climactic. Since it takes place in near darkness, the viewer struggles to make out who has the upper hand. Merriam, bound and gagged to his bunk, can only look on helplessly at what seems to be a mismatch favouring Stone. Again, like the other four scenes above, the violence and dynamic editing ensure that the tension is at the highest level.
In The Ghost Ship Captain Stone may have similarly been driven over the edge by awareness of his absolute authority of life and death over his crew. On a ship, a captain had, by rights, absolute authority and could exercise it without restraint. When the Altair stops in the port of San Sebastian and Stone meets his longtime friend, Charles, and his longtime lover, Ellen, it is evident that he is considered to be a civilized and even lovable human being. But at that time he confessed to Ellen his feelings that something was hounding his peace of mind and that he needed to work out his psychological problems. In this case a civilized, but not entirely stable, mind was not able to deal with the issues of boundless authority.
Absolute authority, of course, can have devastating consequences when applied to larger political scales. In fact over much of Chinese history, at least since the Song dynasty, it could be said that the Chinese emperor did have such absolute autocratic authority, and this came to accepted in Chinese society. At times the only allowable “expressions” of restraint were the natural occurrences of earthquakes and floods, which were interpreted to represent a withdrawal of “Heaven’s Mandate”. Only God was allowed to comment. At the time of the making of The Ghost Ship, the US was engaged in a world war with a Nazi regime whose leader also espoused such absolute authority. At the same time there were questions at home about how much extra authority the US government could reasonably assume in wartime in order to defeat the enemy. Was the seizure of absolute authority necessary to defeat such a tyrant? The argument made in this film seems to be that, even in military situations, the exercise of absolute authority should be restrained. It will inevitably lead to deranged decision-making.
Another theme of interest to some critics is the suggestion of homoerotic elements to the film. Stone seems unable to consummate his “love” for Ellen, and he seems to have expressed more warmth for Merriam early on than he later did for Ellen. And in fact Ellen does warn Merriam in a motherly fashion at one point not to live exclusively among men and to seek the company of women (which he does at the film’s end). However, I think the psychoanalytic analyses and interests in this area are exaggerated and should not be overly stressed.
The Ghost Ship ends rather abruptly, without the usual moralizing that would wrap up many melodramas. In the closing shots we simply see Merriam disembarking back at San Pedro and meeting a young lady who had been recommended to him by Ellen. He has been returned to civilization.