A Movie A Day: THE GHOST SHIP (1943)
There will be other deaths and the agony of dying before we come to land again.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we take a look at the next in our run of Val Lewton flicks, THE GHOST SHIP starring Richard Dix and Russell Wade and directed by Mark Robson, who also helmed yesterday’s THE 7TH VICTIM.
And this may be my favorite of the Val Lewton movies so far, which I didn’t expect. I’ll say that CAT WOMEN was a better made picture, but in terms of pure enjoyment, I really took to this flick.
I just loved the mounting suspense and paranoia as we follow Russell Wade’s 3rd Officer Tom Merriam on his first long voyage under the command of Richard Dix and slowly grow to learn that Dix is losing his mind.
The man is obsessed with proving to this young man that authority means more than the truth. In his own way Dix is the good guy, at least in his head. Dix likes Wade’s Merriam, hires him specifically fresh out of school and they hit it off at first.
It’s not until a few crew-members die mysterious deaths that Merriam begins to suspect anything and not even that pushes him over. One of the crew members appears to the captain letting him know that some of the crew are overworked being short handed (thanks to a couple of the mysterious deaths I was talking about) and by the rulebook he should pull into the nearest port and crew-up.
Dix just stares at him, not threateningly mind you, and says, “You know, there are Captains that would hold this against you.” And he doesn’t continue! I expected at least a false “but I’m not one of those,” or something. Damn, that’s cold Obi-Wan!
Anyway, the poor seaman who approaches Dix with this ends up dying in a pretty damn brutal way, crushed under the heavy chains holding the anchor when his hatch is closed by Dix, so we see the poor bastard trying to scream over the noise of the heavy chains as they slowly crush the life out of him.
Robson, Lewton and screenwriter Donald Henderson Clarke set a fascinating world. The first character we meet is a blind man playing sea shanties for coins and one of the very next characters we meet is a mute man onboard the ship. And we hear his inner dialogue! In raspy whispers, no less. It would almost be ridiculous if it wasn’t so creepy.
Russell Wade is very vanilla here, a blank slate for us to project ourselves into. He’s unflinchingly good, trustworthy and righteous. He’s likable, so that saves him from being boring, but he’s not even close to the most interesting character.
Richard Dix owns this movie. How he goes from nice and affable to nervous to strict to mean as shit to psychotic and back again… it’s amazing to watch. When he finally loses his shit for good at the end of the movie it’s a little sad because you see a glimpse of the life he could have.
There’s a girl waiting for him, newly divorced and wanting to settle down, but Dix is just too far gone and he even knows it in this scene.
Edmund Glover is probably the most likable person in the movie, playing a well-read and kind Radioman who befriends Merriam, but doesn’t want to get involved when Merriam starts accusing the Captain of murder. He’s the kind of character you’d want to be friends with.
Final Thoughts: This film was a nice surprise to me. By now I’ve come to expect that if a Lewton movie has an exploitationy title it won’t live up to it. There are no ghosts, at least not in a supernatural way. You can feel the presence of those who have been killed, all adding to an atmosphere thick with paranoia and insanity. I get the impression that this one is over-looked, even by Lewton fans, which is a shame because it’s a great film. The final fight is brutal and scary, a good payoff to the dread that builds from frame one. And watch out for the great operation scene halfway through, done without any doctors present, only via radio. Intense stuff.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Tuesday, September 2nd: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
Wednesday, September 3rd: BEDLAM (1946)
Thursday, September 4th: BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Friday, September 5th: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Saturday, September 6th: TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (1972)
Sunday, September 7th: TRAGIC CEREMONY (1972)
Monday, September 8th: LISA AND THE DEVIL (1976)
We got 2 more Val Lewton movies to hit before we move on to Bava. I think I’ve decided to make October as fun as I can with a potpourri of horror from 1st-31st, freezing the column in its tracks and picking up where we left off November 1st. I just feel like hitting some fucking absurd horror and will probably be even more in the mood after we get through the next week of Bava and spend the rest of September with Comedy and Drama.
See you folks tomorrow for ISLE OF THE DEAD!
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Sept. 2, 2008, 5:40 a.m. CST
is all i've got. Quint you've inspired me. AS of late i've been watching a hell of a lot of movies that i passed on the first time around. not as awe inspiring as yours but nonetheless movies that i had to see for the sake of watching. it helped tht they all had riffmaster voice overs on them, both plan 9 from outer space and battlefield earth, but my god they were terrible! i ask if you can mix it up a bit perhaps some more modern classics amongst your viewing once in a while ( try not to be a slave to continuity) amongst your golden ages viewings
Sept. 2, 2008, 5:58 a.m. CST
All I remember is a fight scene where they swing an anchor back and forth at each other for like 30 mins. The sound of the chain and anchor crashing is intense. Also Dix's bizarre sleepwalking/drunk/brilliant performance.
Sept. 2, 2008, 6:21 a.m. CST
Holy crap, you're right. That was Tierney. Awesome. The swinging anchor scene you're talking about actually happens early in the movie and it's not a fight scene, just our first indication that the captain ain't all right in the noggin, or at least has some serious judgment issues as he orders the anchor to hang free so the newly applied paint can dry, even when he's confronted with how dangerous that is.<BR><BR>The climactic fight scene is a knife fight... and a tense one it is, too.
Sept. 2, 2008, 6:25 a.m. CST
by Boba Fat
I've seen all the ones listed, as a card carrying, Italian horror geek, I love that stuff and think Lisa And The Devil could be his masterpiece. I'm really looking forward to the write ups though and the talk backs. Sorry to go off topic I got myself all excited and Bavafied.
Sept. 2, 2008, 6:51 a.m. CST
I remember now, all the crewmen running around the deck dodging and/or trying to stop the anchor. I can't remember the end fight at all. Hearing the mute guys inner thoughts was another weird touch in this odd little flick.
Sept. 2, 2008, 6:56 a.m. CST
I'm looking forward to it. Bava's always been a big hole in my film education. I've seen most of Argento's stuff, most of Fulci's well-known stuff... I've seen more Lamberto Bava than Mario, though. Can't wait to dive in a bit. I got two whole box sets to hit before I'm done with the column.
Sept. 2, 2008, 7:35 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
Seems like Queeg's got nothing on this guy.
Sept. 2, 2008, 7:38 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
Forbidden Planet. If you never have it's a must see. A young Leslie Nielsen in a serious role, and the first appearance of Robby the Robot. The effects were at the time state of the art. They aren't today of course, but they're still good.
Sept. 2, 2008, 8:13 a.m. CST
I have and I've rewatched it recently, even. And the Moby Dick parallels in THE GHOST SHIP are actually pretty strong, actually.
Sept. 2, 2008, 8:29 a.m. CST
by Boba Fat
Argento is great and was my introduction to Italian horror. I really enjoy the excess of a lot of the Italian genre film-makers, music, make-up FX, acting camera you name it but when you watch the Bava films you totally see the huge debt they all owe him especially Argento. Not to take anything away from Dario but he stole from the best. Bava's range is just incredible, plus he did his own make-up and visual effects on a lot of the early flicks (Black Sabbath)and that's one of the things I love about them, that sense of setting out with a camera and small crew and telling your story with whatever is to hand that you can use cheaply and effectively, he loves creepy branch in front of the camera! That's why I said Lisa And The Devil could be his masterpiece because how can you choose between the masterful surreal creepiness of that film and the gothic beauty of Black Sunday or the pop art of something like Danger Diabolik? I can't anyway.<P> Looking forward to your take on them. Cheers!
Sept. 2, 2008, 8:43 a.m. CST
by Boba Fat
And I got my Black Sundays and Black Sabbath's mixed up so, I was banging on about the gothic, black and white beauty of Black Sunday in my earlier post. Black Sabbath in in color and the middle story "The Wurderlak" is a great mix of Argento purple and reds. I bet the young Dario was sat in a cinema in Rome with a notebook in 1964!
Sept. 2, 2008, 8:55 a.m. CST
For anyone who complains that the title is misleading, people have to remember that they where usually thought of in advanced by Val Lewton's supervisors at RKO. He got pretty much creative freedom to do what he wanted, but he never came up with the names of the movies. I should also add that Val Lewton was sued for plagiarism by a couple of writers who claimed he stole this idea from them.
Sept. 2, 2008, 10:12 a.m. CST
I'm dee-lighted that you liked "The Ghost Ship". To the extent that its overlooked, I think a lot of that can be blamed on the fact that it was apparently out of circulation for years, due to some kind of copyright issue. That and the fact that its probably the Lewton that has the least marketable names (no Simone Simon, no Tom Conway, no Boris Karloff). But its a pretty engaging picture, isn't it? I remember when I got the Lewton box set, I finished "The Leopard Man" late one night and decided just to take a peek at "The Ghost SHip" and literally could not stop watching it because I really wasn't sure where the story was going to go. Dix starts out so affably as the captain - part fatherly and part ... well, who knows - that you can't quite believe it as he goes further and further down the path of batshit crazy. I really did not know how it was gonna end, so I kept watching, finishing up at like 3 in the morning. A couple of trivia notes - some great Lewton players in this one: Sir Lancelot as a singing crewman, the first mate is the cult leader from yesterday's "The 7th Victim", the mute crewman turns up as a cockney in tomorrow's "Isle of the Dead" (my second favorite Lewton), and Dix's island squeeze is Vincent Price's first wife who also turns up in "I Walked with a Zombie". Add to that the fact that the island the ship visits in the flick is St. Sebastian - I assume the same island as San Sebastian, also from "I Walked with a Zombie" - and you get a lot of Lewtonian cross-referencing.
Sept. 2, 2008, 10:20 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
Queeg was the Captain in The Caine Mutiny. Bogart was in that role in the big screen. It has had numerous stage runs over the decades. Charlton Heston played Queeg once. Wish I could have seen that.
Sept. 2, 2008, 10:39 a.m. CST
When everyone is cut in half by the wires! That part was awesome!!<br><br> Oh wait, never mind.
Sept. 2, 2008, 10:59 a.m. CST
It was one of the films my local UHF station would rotate as their 'one o'clock movie' before the days of Fox, UPN, and whatever else has taken over the old UHF independent guys.
Sept. 2, 2008, 12:50 p.m. CST
This film was such a pleasant surprise! Captain Stone’s ability to justify his nefarious behavior with twisted logic almost convinces you that what he’s doing makes a whole lot of sense. I love the ship setting and the idea of not really being able to hide anywhere because there’s only a finite amount of space. The fact that this film is in black and white only adds to the claustrophobic feel. This is a really fun film and one of Val Lewton's better films. Avoid Lewton's "I Walked With a Zombie". Despite the praise given by critics, the film is a 90-minute sleeping pill. The Leapord Man is a lot more fun.
Sept. 2, 2008, 2:27 p.m. CST
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the best of the lot.
Sept. 2, 2008, 2:48 p.m. CST
This is still a great column. Keep up the good work Quint!
Sept. 2, 2008, 6:54 p.m. CST
Here’s an effective gripping drama/thriller that considers its moral quandaries seriously. Surprisingly, considering its title and place in this box set, there are no supernatural elements. The villain is pliable vulnerable humanity. The captain, who loses his mind, has honorable intentions at the outset but has been too long at sea and too lonely to see his ideas have become unsound. Coming from 1943, it can perhaps be seen as a microcosm of how Hitler came to power. Many people will ignore anything to keep their jobs unless there’s concrete proof to back them up. The responsibility of authority also demands that citizens do not stand by idly. Every aspect of the production is excellent: direction, acting, atmospheric cinematography, a top-notch script. I agree with Quint that Russell Wade is heavy on being goody-two-shoes, but he plays the situations realistically and it works. This movie does more in 69 minutes than most do in two hours. If more of the films in this series are of this quality, then it’s easy to understand why Val Lewton deserved his own box set.
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