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Fear Itself
Val Lewton’s The Ghost Ship

Donald Phelps

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Hit the Deck

Val Lewton’s The Ghost Ship (Mark Robson, 1943) stands out like a stark rough-stroked woodcut among his other better-remembered films of ‘horror’. The attributes of such others as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Seventh Victim (1943) – their infiltrations of Old World culture, the delicate sensuosity in their deployment of light and shadow – are strained thin by pre-emptively realistic setting of The Ghost Ship: an American freighter. The claustrophobic actuality of the setting prevails oppressively from early on. Aided by the expressive skill of Nicholas Musuraca’s camera, the grey bulkheads, the stark white walls of the quarters, impinge on each scene like the breastplates of a menacing army. Even in the world of Lewton, who afforded a painterly attention to setting and décor, the setting of The Ghost Ship exudes a stripped, ubiquitous intensity that is refracted in the spic-and-span black uniform of the ship’s captain Stone (Richard Dix), the increasingly alarming symbol of his mortal authority.

Possibly because of its appearance in an illustrious Lewton entourage (including the films mentioned above, plus The Leopard Man [1943]); partly, to be sure, because of its long withdrawal from circulation following upon what sounds like a weirdly improbable plagiarism suit, The Ghost Ship has not been available to Lewton admirers for many years. Viewing it today recalls the lean, brusque tabloid dispatch of Lewton’s low-budget contemporaries; the five o’clock shadow style of William Castle (Tod Browning’s heir) or Pine-Thomas. The opening shot of The Ghost Ship salutes the ocean’s murderous virtuosity: a lighted window of a nautical supply shop displays an arrangement of gleaming knives. The window is beheld by a young ship’s officer, Tom Merriam (Russell Wade), about to board this vessel. The ominous lights, framed by the ominous inky night, suggest the perilous choices of a seagoing career. Likewise, they forecast the deceptive radiance emitted by the beaming Captain Stone.

We hear the ancient shanty ‘Blow the Man Down’, sung by a blind, panhandling street minstrel. Rather predictably (for Lewton) he offers the young seamen an omen of the vessel as a bearer of death. The blind Tiresias is rewarded with change and summarily dismissed by Wade; thus withdrawing into the ranks of singers, street jugglers, declaiming poets – myriad voices that haunt Lewton’s films with their fluttering, shredded recollections of dying culture, a humanism that has become ever more vagrant; shuffling, rather than treading. There are those ready (though in the circumstances ineffective) angels of light: the strolling players who offer Jean Brooks in The Seventh Victim reprieve from a self-decided doom. In the same film, stereotypical (yet how familiar those stereotypes, within the ‘40s of New York): the musical Italian couple who offer Kim Hunter haven in their Greenwich Village restaurant.

Our nautical protagonist parts with the blind seer, only to encounter a second – a mute, one of the ship’s hands, who is whittling and ruminating. His thoughts (a rare use of voice-over soliloquy in a Lewton movie) allude to life lost, and life yet to depart. The silent seamen will be perceived as the emissary of the film’s major theme of stifled communication: counsel, testimony, unheard or ineffectual.

The voluble mute, black-sweatered, his chiselled stark white face framed by a black watch cap, is played by one of the ‘40s indelible minor entities, with an indelibly evocative name, redolent of both Elizabethan and Restoration eras: Skelton Knaggs. His dire musings may recall the sardonic meditations of that other shadowy, B-movie kibitzer, The Whistler (the more so since Richard Dix starred in the agile and popular ‘40s series).

Yet, such perceptions must make way for another: that of Lewton’s combined finesse and sensibility, his regard for the dignity of his purpose and his craft, in handling the material of how many pulp Londons and factotum Foresters.

Yo Ho, and Up She Rises

Val Lewton’s career, beginning with Cat People in 1942 and ending with Apache Drums in 1951, emerged from a chalky emulsion of gentrification among Hollywood thrillers. This gentrification was imposed mainly by the martial proprieties of the Hays/Breen Production Code, as well as other converging elements: the arrival in Hollywood of Alfred Hitchcock, who overhauled Gothic materials in terms of urbane realism, and radically restylised the concept of suspense. Another force was the second wind of fad psychiatry, seen mainly in the misapplication of the terms ‘psychological’ to melodramas like Night Must Fall (1937), and its teeming progeny. Allied with such influence was the Second World War-induced overhauling of the American imagination; the re-ordering of space and distance; the realignment of terror (aggravated apprehension of present danger) with horror (apprehension of the universe’s implicit enormity).

The overall flavour of Hollywood horror in the terminal ‘30s tended to milk of magnesia, spritzed with mail-order literacy. One witnessed the examples of filmmakers like Tod Browning, James Whale and their 1920s refugee German comrades, shorn of the visual audacities and ferocious presumption that fired the triumphs, and redeemed the occasional trashiness and fatuities, of their decades.

To be sure, 1938/9 and the early ‘40s offered occasional modest peaks. Rowland V. Lee’s heavily loquacious but intermittently striking Son of Frankenstein (1939) (which newly demonised the Monster: recall those battling body cells, witnessed through Basil Rathbone’s microscope!). The screenplay may have owed its verbosity to the designated author, Wyllis Cooper, creator and major contributor to the ‘Lights Out’ radio series.

The early ‘40s were sparked on occasion by such as William Castle, who carried on Tod Browning’s mean-eyed pavement realism and taste for bizarre aberrations, mingled (in Castle’s later years) with a carny barker’s affection for gimmicky audience lures. Overbalancing such winners, however, one recalls tepid snoozers like 1941’s The Mad Doctor (an errant psychiatrist); the torpid Black Friday (1940), which Karloff and Lugosi in tandem could not keep on its feet; and the 1944 Gaslight replay Experiment Perilous, which even Jacques Tourneur’s svelte artistry could reclaim only at widespread intervals.

Against the threadbare dandyism of such Hollywood output, Val Lewton offered the consolidation of a genuine sensibility, which to this day reifies and at its notably frequent best transcends the so-called genre – in fact, style – of the horror movie.

True, his work, like much of his pretentious brethren’s output, enlists numerous cultural allusions, directed with a gently pedagogic inflection. However, one is repeatedly aware of a personal concern, a private identification with the significance of ancient beliefs and practices. Although his presentation sometimes falters, Lewton delivers overall a consistent image of our present civilization as fragile and possibly illusory; repeatedly invaded, like a mansion’s skeletal remnants, with vagrant visitors from mythology, legend and, above all, religion.

Lewton is no gospel hawker; but his humanism in random instances is seen listing toward the Judeo-Christian tradition. But the vital force of his redolent genre pictures is his manifest intense concern with (in its elevated sense) style; style as real and palpable and, indeed, as a portico of survival.

Oh Captain, My Captain

The atmosphere of the sea in The Ghost Ship is not manifest as is the West Indies setting of Zombie, or the Tarrytown woodscapes and legends in Curse of the Cat People (1944). A death among the Altair’s crew is reported shortly after young Merriam’s arrival. Yet, the script adduces no details, supernatural or natural, to embroider the grim fact. It is left as a single instance, signifying perhaps the ravaging pressures and exactations of shipboard life, as attested by the presence of its chief witness and victim – Captain Stone. In his person, Lewton and Dix present a psychological portrait of startling complexity, certainly in the close quarters of a 69-minute film. The captain embodies idealism gone awry: a tragic aberration ranking as character depiction with the heroes of Conrad’s ‘The End of the Tether’ and ‘Typhoon’. The crew is presented as a clutch of persuasively diverse individuals (though not, thanks be, the varnished rainbow divisions of too many World War II films). Sir Lancelot, the dapper troubadour of Zombie, is here unrecognisable in a sheepdog wig and shapeless tropical garments; a youthful Lawrence Tierney plays a granite-faced bravo; while Edmund Glover dallies with Latin phrases as a collegiate radio operator.

Plentiful acknowledgement is due Lewton’s director, Mark Robson, who realises here a rare advance beyond his typical rather pedestrian adeptness. By similar token, the screenwriter Donald Henderson Clarke, a writer usually (when I was young) identified with what might now be called soft-core erotica, contributes a screenplay of no outstanding grace but of continual taut conviction and precision, at best matching the more decorative sallies of his compeers.

The writing benefits immeasurably from its delivery by Richard Dix, whose appearance as Stone, from his initial entrance, radiates the breadth and volume of the best silent film acting: a self-created iconography, sufficient to focus powerfully the dark parable of idolatry that Lewton has to convey.

The captain’s interview with his new officer is spiked by a notable incident. Officer Merriam notices a moth fluttering near the lamp, and offers to kill it. Stone suavely reproves him: ‘You have no right.’ But rather than quote from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, or any variation of the predictable sermonette, Captain Stone tenders a Zen-like injunction: ‘It doesn’t depend on you for its safety.’

The captain will elaborate subsequently on his koan: ‘I have the right to do what I want with the men because their safety does depend on me ... I have certain rights of risk over them ...’ Automatically brought to mind by this coda are certain ancient powers accruing to every captain’s authority: for example, the right to execute capital punishment for mutiny and related crimes endangering the vessel and crew, the agonising option, in crises of mortal safety such as shipwreck, to decide who shall survive. However, Captain Stone’s codification – its emphasis on life and death prerogative – gives a darker overtone to his ad hoc parable: a moth fluttering near a brilliant light, an apparent beckoning haven by which, without intervention, the moth’s life may be exacted.

The true interpretation is not slow in coming: the ghost of this Ghost Ship is the Holy Spirit, according to Captain Stone, of authority.

A more alarming revelation heaves to in the wake of that one: the core of Stone’s authority is terror. This is the triumph, the retaining originality of Lewton’s presentation. As artfully delivered by Clarke and Robson, and resoundingly rendered by Dix, Captain Stone is neither a ranting despot like Bligh, nor a Nietzsche-besotted sadist like Wolf Larsen, nor yet, despite some fleeting likeness, a dithering hysteric like Queeg. Stone’s persona is that of a former idealist submerging into madness. The sparse (priestly?) décor of his cabin features a wall plaque with an illuminating motto: ‘Who Does Not Heed the Rudder Must Face the Rock’. Straightforward, seamanly advice it would appear; but with one – no, two – hidden clauses. The rudder (i.e., sheer control) has become law in itself. Two: the skipper, aptly named Stone, has become both rudder and rock.

Limned by Lewton and his retinue with the compact complexity of an engraving, Captain Stone is the archetype of a horror not merely psychological, but spiritual: Saturn devouring his children. The guardian/protector/warder, impelled by real or delusory crisis to destroy those given into his charge. The type, as stated here, abounds in popular melodrama but usually as motivated by basic megalomania, or simple corruption. In Lewton’s usage, however, the characters of Doctor MacFarlane (The Body Snatchers [1945]), the traumatised curator of The Leopard Man, the perverted ‘benefactors’ of the updated Suicide Club in The Seventh Victim, all highlight Lewton’s spiritual sensibility. They are perceived as people whose benign instincts have been unhinged by their collisions with the devastating powers of Nature. In The Leopard Man, indeed, the murderer’s vocation is to study and safeguard Nature. A hideous calamity deranges him, prompting him to take upon himself the ‘sins’ of a prowling beast (the movie’s climax finds him symbolically encompassed by robed penitentes).

Forced to deal with the ferocious arbitrariness of the sea, coupled with the prankish spasms of human nature, Captain Stone has supplanted the principles of his command with monstrous abstractions. The crew has been transmogrified from an assemblage of variously skilled, vulnerable men into an unbreachable collective. Authority, once the balanced administration of power and responsibility made pliable mutual respect, has become an unapproachable monolithic Purity, from which any hint of challenge must be deflected. Discipline – the rigorous yet humane enforcement of obedience and civil peace – has contracted into a single implacable Rod.

Lewton’s surpassing achievement in Stone is to realise the humanity, the vulnerability of this implicitly terrifying figure; with no perceptible contradiction between the humanity and the horror. This achievement, rare enough in any Hollywood film, gives The Ghost Ship a signal place among ‘horror’ films. Lewton bypasses the orthodox flummery of the horror genre to see and realise the black cavity of metaphysical fear; the nucleus of authentic horror. He realises it in the metaphor (none the less for its being unstated and unseen) of the ocean; a presence like that of a lurking shark. This is the heart of the claustrophobia that powerfully inflects the film. We gradually come, with and through Lewton, to perceive it as Stone’s mounting sense of constriction in his body-sized tabernacle of authority.

In one segment of the film, a young seaman collapses with appendicitis. With no surgeon aboard, Stone, as captain, is obligated to perform the operation. In one more savagely ironic permutation of his name, Stone is petrified. I can hardly communicate here the ominous challenge that Lewton, Robson and Musuraca evoke from the exposed pale skin of the sailor, discerned by Stone as a threatening void. Meanwhile, Lewton plies an aural image that resurfaces in The Seventh Victim, The Isle of the Dead (1945) and The Body Snatcher. I refer to the disembodied voice – taunting, warning, challenging; a wheezing cliché in its over-usage by so much of radio and film ventriloquists. Here it is invested with subtle power by Lewton’s discerning musicianship.

The voice of the doctor, on the wireless, delivering instructions to the transfixed captain, is like a supernatural summons. It ranks with the grimly cautionary voice of Mary Newton through the shower curtain or the mocking recitative of Helen Thimig through a bedroom wall. The pit of horror, of course, is the intuition, projected by Stone’s mute terror, that the message will end in nothingness.

‘The Captain is Impaled’

In private, the captain offers his apologia to young Merriam (who has taken over the surgery successfully): Stone was afraid ‘only of failure’. This in itself is perceived as a euphemism. The naked skin from which the skipper recoiled was the nakedness of his authority: the Holy of Holies, to lay hands on which is death.

Here and throughout the film, Lewton’s manifest definition and command of ‘horror’ echo Poe’s definition in his ‘Theory of Composition’: the patient building of a different empathy in the reader/viewer, a whole geography distant from the headlong, pulverising, totalitarian frivolities of today’s mechanised spectacles. The linked visual and aural motifs in The Ghost Ship feature the icon-like stillness of Richard Dix; which, as an old silent film hand, he effects at no cost to his mobility. His finely modulated performance bypasses any temptation to rant and gesticulation; this, even in the climactic scene where he betrays some diabolical highlights. The recent trendy expression passive-aggressive is redefined and justified.

The most trenchant images involve a huge cargo chain and hook, newly painted and left to dry, dangling by the ship’s side. Captain Stone, true to the principles of decorum, declines to raise and redeposit the chain, for fear of marring the paint. With nightfall, however, a gale force wind rises. With stunning command of design, Lewton provides an emblematic portent of Stone’s insanity: in a single shot, one sees a section of the ship’s side; in the foreground, the chain, like the Midgard Serpent restored, lashes and cavorts, as men launch themselves, scramble, grasp and veer. Lower and to the right of the frame, with a lighted window, Stone’s head and shoulders are seen unmoving, as he looks on with unblinking serenity. The chain would appear to be a prothesis of his mind, fatally divided between prospective chaos and the peace of Death.

The implicit metaphor is savagely reactivated in a later scene. The captain, it seems, has for some time been making unscheduled stops at San Sebastian Harbour. Some of the hands, including the forthright Louie (Lawrence Tierney), speculate on these ex officio tarryings; evidently (but only implicitly, this being 1943) speculating that the skipper is seeking sexual recreation, denied to his crew. (As we are soon appraised, no Captain’s Paradise is involved; in fact, Captain Stone is visiting his fiancée, played by Edith Barrett, who with him has been enduring a long and torturous divorce suit.)

When young Tierney, on a bet, confronts the captain with inquiries about his mystifying agenda, he is stonewalled with cool hauteur. The captain concludes the interview with a phrase that will echo ominously later: ‘Another captain wouldn’t forget this.’ The other captain, of course, has already taken his place.

The interview’s sequel may have already established itself among other viewers as a classic Lewton scene. The wayward boat chain of the earlier scene is to be stored in the loading compartment, under Louie’s supervision. At his signal, the chain begins a ponderous descent. A cut to the corridor outside shows a uniformed figure manipulating the lock on the chamber door. Tierney finds the door jammed. As the descending coils accelerate, he cries out; but the phlegmatic iron rattle is too loud. The coils descend more quickly, filling the scene.

Regrettably, the last fifteen minutes of The Ghost Ship include oratory about despotism versus faith in humanity; to me, such declamation rings too glibly and tinnily of the production’s WWII context. Even at that, the speeches are exchanged, in a darkened cabin, with endearing conviction by Russell Wade, and a single demoniac glimpse of Dix’s scornful smile. Neither the scene, nor the pious coda by Skelton Knagg’s Mute chorus can detract from the authentic (albeit small scale) visionary power of Val Lewton’s dark lyricism.


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© Donald Phelps and Rouge 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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