That was pretty incredible, actually. It's another Val Lewton horror movie, this time entirely set in the real world without any supernatural elements at all. What's so fascinating about it is the way that (a) the villain is such a fascinating, complicated character who's aware that he's slipping into madness even as he goes around killing anyone who upsets him, and (b) the hero and the villain are basically the same character.
We'll take the villain first. He's played by Richard Dix, one of RKO's contracted stars who'd been in films since the start of the 1920s. He'd also been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 1931 for Cimarron, which won for Best Picture. You can tell he's a fine actor, but like Karloff he's being given some outstanding material to work with. Captain Will Stone is round the twist, a monster every bit as extreme and frightening as Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates. He's obsessed with his own authority. To question him is to undermine him. "Authority cannot be questioned." Anything that he thinks might make him look fallible is an evil to be eradicated, even if that thing is a man. "I have rights over their lives." He's a terrifying man, but that's in large part because we been brought to such a deep understanding of his psyche and neither Lewton nor Dix ever let him become a cartoon. This is a human being, with dignity and even charm. He's arguably more likeable than the hero and aware of his loneliness and psychological problems. He's even willing to discuss them!
The other reason he's so scary is that he's untouchable. Cross the captain at sea and your life won't be worth living. In his own little world, he's more powerful than Dracula. The film takes its own sweet time about getting around to demonstrating this, but eventually it's as if the ship and its crew are merely an extension of the captain's will.
Against him we have our hero, played by Russell Wade. At first glance he seems a pretty wooden actor, but if you watch him closely you'll see he's keeping his reactions small. Wade and Dix are basically playing the same man, you see. They like each other. They think alike. Dix takes Wade under his wing from the beginning and explains why their backgrounds and ways of thinking are so alike, while Wade likes his captain and thinks he's talking sense even when he's being a scary egomaniac. It's a woman who points out the truth to him (and us). "You're just like the captain. Cold, lonely, austere." Neither man will ever admit to making a mistake... it's just that Wade also happens to be the hero, so we're supporting him even when he's throwing his friends' advice in their faces and committing career suicide. Towards the end it's not even obvious that making Wade the new captain wouldn't simply mean replacing a monster with its protegee.
In fairness, we like him. He's a good man and he believes in the goodness of others. However we like Dix too and the older man's constantly been trying to persuade the younger of the rightness of his worldview. I've even seen critics try to impose a reading of repressed homosexuality on this film, regarding which it's certainly true that the only woman in the film has set her heart on Dix and doesn't seem to be making much headway. They're close friends, but as far as anything deeper goes she's the one who's making all the running.
Personally though I'm not convinced. It's a film about sailors at sea. Of course it's going to have a mostly male cast. What do we expect, mermaids? A key point is that as with all Lewton films, there's a sense of authenticity that immediately convinces you that the filmmakers know what they're talking about. It's little things as much as anything, the vocabulary and the ways of thinking that you'll see in the sailors' conversations. There's one horrible job here that I'd never imagined might become necessary, let alone that the captain would have to perform it, but it makes perfect sense. As with everything else in this film, you'll believe what you see.
Okay, admittedly there's some back projection, but not too much. It certainly doesn't look like the low-budget fare that was in reality all of Lewton's RKO output. On the contrary, it's directed as intelligently as it's written. Note how Mark Robson makes use of darkness, for instance, with the hook and later the scene with the knives. The cinematography is subtle and classy, while the characters' motives aren't underlined for the hard of thinking as you'd expect from films these days. It's also genuinely scary, which is something I've found Lewton manages more often than anyone else I've come across of his era. Look at the scene where Wade's locked in his cabin and you have no idea where the danger might come from next. It's common in Lewton's films for a character to have to take a long walk in which every sound and object pose a possible threat, but here the same effect's being achieved with nothing more than a man in his bedroom.
This film has quite a history. It only came to be because RKO had an expensive ship set that they'd built for a 1939 film called Pacific Liner, so to get more for their money they asked Lewton to write a horror film around it. Lewton wanted to do a supernatural comedy (The Amorous Ghost), but he'd just saved RKO from bankruptcy with Cat People (1942) and understandably they wanted more films like that. The film duly came out in December 1943, but the real surprise came with Lewton being sued for plagiarism by Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, the authors of an unsolicited script that had been sent to his office during the period of The Ghost Ship's development. Lewton could have settled this out of court, but he chose to go to trial. His defence was that he'd returned their manuscript unread, but the judge didn't believe him. For nearly fifty years the film disappeared, only reappearing when all rights expired and it entered the public domain in the 1990s.
The nearest thing to a weak link in the cast would be calypso singer Sir Lancelot. Yes, that's his name. However on the upside Skelton Knaggs, Edmund Glover and Hollywood bad boy Lawrence Tierney (see also Reservoir Dogs) all made their movie debuts here, which is reason enough in itself to adore this film. Knaggs has the most wonderfully ugly face and here he's playing a mute whose thoughts we hear in voiceover and is thus effectively the film's occasional narrator. It's a hell of a part, actually. Not much screen time, but it's Knaggs that makes him special.
Incidentally even the fact that he's a mute leads us to horrible speculations about how things might turn out during the finale, which has quite a lot of blood for a 1943 film. Oh, and at one point the ship docks at San Sebastien, the fictional Caribbean island of I Walked With A Zombie.
This is a film of intelligence and subtlety. It's classy even by Val Lewton's standards and in both theme and characterisation it's one of his richest films. I was expecting something good, but even so it astonished me.