The Ghost Ship (1943): Noir at Sea

The Ghost Ship (1943)

The mad captain of a coastal freighter terrorises a rookie 3rd officer
(1952 RKO. Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson 69 mins)

Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Screenplay by Donald Henderson Clarke from a story by Leo Mittler
Original Music by Roy Webb
Art Direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller

Richard Dix –  Captain Will Stone
Russell Wade – Tom Merriam, 3rd Officer
Skelton Knaggs – Finn, the mute crewman

I’ll explain now. I told you you
had no right to kill the moth. That
its safety did not depend on you.
But I have the right to do what I
want with the men because their
safety does depend on me.
I stand ready any hour of the day
or night to give my life for their
safety and the safety of this
vessel — because I do, I have
certain rights of risk over them.
Do you understand?

At the outset, you should be aware that contrary to the expectations conjured by the film’s lurid poster, there are no nubile woman and no ghosts in this movie. Indeed, there are no women on the ship when it is at sea, where most of the action occurs.  The only woman that has a significant role is a plain and very proper middle-aged spinster carrying a torch for the captain, who visits the ship in port.

A strange film, The Ghost Ship, was out of circulation for 50 years shortly after its initial release due to a plagiarism suit.  Produced by Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO, it is not a horror movie but a psychodrama with a strong atmosphere of entrapment. The production team of the magnificent The Seventh Victim made earlier in the same year transferred directly to this picture.  The actual story is simple and as most of the action occurs on a set, cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca, has few opportunities to bring a deeper focus to the action, though set-bound lighting and fog are used to good effect.

The Ghost Ship (1943)

The film is dominated by actor Richard Dix, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Cimarron (1931), winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year. He was a big box-office draw at RKO during the 30s appearing in mystery thrillers, pot-boilers, westerns and program fillers, and appeared in the “Whistler” series of mystery films at Columbia in the mid-40s. His portrayal of the insane Captain Will Stone is masterfully understated.  Bit-player Russell Wade  is believable as the rookie, a role he specialised in.  A suitably mysterious turn by Skelton Knaggs as Finn, the mute crewman whose dark voice-over narration adds a gothic dimension to proceedings, provides depth and a mystic counterpoint to the very real menace of the mad Captain. Finn is not just a chorus to the action as he has a pivotal role in the climactic resolution.  Quite another mystery is why his contribution went uncredited.

The arc of the film is the cat-and-mouse game between the captain and his 3rd officer, who has no escape as he is trapped on the ship commanded by his pursuer.  The terror of the 3rd officer’s entrapment is brilliantly portrayed in his cabin one night when each sound is ominous, and the sinister crescendo progressively pushes him further and further into a paralytic terror.

The calm exterior of the captain has the rest of the crew fooled, and the young man’s isolation is desperate, with the claustrophobic tension sustained right into the brutal climax.

A film you might think is slight immediately after viewing, subconsciously insinuates itself into your memory. A must see movie.

FINN (voice-over narration):
The man is dead. The waters of the
sea are open to us. With his blood
we have bought passage. There will
be the agony of dying and another
death before we come to land again.
Men’s lives are the red coin thrown
into the sea so that we may come
and go across the waters.

7 thoughts on “The Ghost Ship (1943): Noir at Sea”

  1. Wow Wow Wow!!! I just saw this and will respond when I get home from school more comprehensively as I am a huge Lewton fan (as you know) and an avid admirer of this film. It looks really great though!


  2. A most exceptional review, Tony. You incisively chronicle all of the components that meet to make this a wonderful film to treasure.

    Your descriptions of the understated performance by Richard Dix, and the build-up to the climactic sequence, are marvelous.

    Fine work!


  3. GHOST SHIP has an acute claustrophia, which is a perfect spacing device for this menacing psychodrama to unspool. In this sense, it’s comparable to Powell and Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS, which although about sexual tensions and repression is also about a sense of entrapment. Tony himself here says as much in his genre definition: “GHOST SHIP is not a horror movie but a psychodrama with a strong atmosphere of entrapment.”
    I completely agree with the comparison to THE SEVENTH VICTIM, another film that disavows the centerpiece terror sequences that spotted the rest of the series. i.e. the hair-raising coach/dead man scene in THE BODY SNATCHER, the murder of teh little girl by the animal in THE LEOPARD MAN, the terrifying nocturnal walk in CAT PEOPLE, etc….GHOST SHIP is propelled by psychological underpinnings, a subtle mental meltdown by the central character.(Captain Will Stone, played by Richard Dix) Within the constrictions of a 69 minute film, Lewton and Dix present a portrait of startling complexity. The captain embodies qualities of “idealism run awry.”
    Tony says “A suitable mysterious turn by Skelton Knaggs as Finn, the mute crewman whose dark voice-over narration adds gothic dimensions to the proceedings.” This silent seaman may also be perceived as a kind of “emissary” of the film’s major theme of stifled communication” councel, testimony, unheard or ineffectual.
    I would have to believe that the screenplay of GHOST SHIP by Donald Henderson Clarke is not outstanding in grace and poetry (like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE’S for example) but moves along with continual taut conviction and precision. This writing benefits immeasurably from its delivery by Richard Dix, whose appearance as Stone, from his initial entrance, radiates a breath and volume of the best silent film acting: a self-created iconography, sufficient to focus rather powerfully the dark parable of idolatry that Lewton wants to convey here.
    Hence, Lewton’s surpassing achievement in Stone is to realise the humanity, the vulnerability in this implicitly terrifying figure; with no real contradiction between the humanity and horror. Lewton bypasses the orthodox pedestrian trappings of the horror genre (as Tony asserted at the outset) to see and realize the black cavity of metaphysical fear, which is really the nucleus of any intended horror. He realizes it in the metaphor (none the less for its being unstated and unseen. This is the actual nature of the claustrophobia that compellingly inflects the film.
    Some have attacked the film’s ending as too glib, but it almost seems like a perfect resolution, with speeches that evince Lewton’s dark lyricism.

    Fabulous revisitation here by Tony and superlative use of those haunting final lines.


  4. Thank you very kindly Alexander and Sam for your generous comments.

    Sam, you have nailed what I wanted to say about Dix’s portrayal but failed to get across in my piece – alas I lack the facility and eloquence of language that you and Alexander so manifestly display in your reviews.


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