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The Ghost Ship

Posted by martinteller on December 22, 2012

Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is the new third officer aboard the freight ship Altair.  The ship’s captain, Will Stone (Richard Dix), is a man obsessed with his ideas about authority.  Merriam grows suspicious of Stone’s behavior and believes his superior is going mad… even costing men their lives.  But when he tries to prove it, the crew turns against him and now Merriam finds his life in the hands of the vengeful Stone.

Despite its supernatural title, there are no ghosts nor any other spirits in this film.  But it does ramp up the tension very nicely, and the creeping dread comes from the menace of a mentally unhinged man who wields power.  As a movie made in the midst of WWII, it may be intended as a statement against fascism and abuse of the helpless under the guise of “authority”.

I was surprised to like this as much as I did.  It has a low IMDb rating, and the score that Criticker predicted I would give it was quite low as well (Criticker’s “PSI” system is usually pretty reliable, but it’s not infallible).  I figured I’d be watching the weakest of the set, one thrown in only to make it complete.  But it turned out to be one of my favorites.  Unlike some of the other Val Lewton films, nothing here felt like padding.  Every scene had something interesting going on, something to advance the story or deepen the exploration of these characters or simply add to the mood of impending doom.  Highlights include the operation and the memorable “hook” scene, but I enjoyed almost all of it.  The climax was unexpectedly brutal.

Wade is not a terrific actor, at least not here, where he overdoes the naiveté.  But he has a certain likable everyman presence that makes it easy to follow along with him.  Dix shows some complexity (I’ve realized that Lewton rarely likes to go for characters that are simply evil) and his performance is quite nuanced.  The crew includes a number of fine characters, including Lawrence Tierney in one of this first roles, the Calypso singer Sir Lancelot and Edmund Glover as Merriam’s sardonic friend.  Skelton Knaggs and his unforgettable face are here as well, playing a mute seaman whose interior monologue serves as the film’s poetic narration.  It’s the little touches like that — and the blind man (Alec Craig) at the beginning who foresees trouble ahead for Merriam — that give Lewton’s movies an eerie feeling even when they’re not dealing with eerie elements.  Musuraca again provides excellent cinematography, making it feel at times like “Mutiny on the Bounty” reimagined as a film noir.

I’m still not keeping the set — as I said in my review of The Body Snatcher, it’s too bulky for something I don’t care enough about — but there are enough minor gems like this one in it that I would consider buying it in a reasonably priced, slim Blu-Ray edition.  Rating: Very Good (82)


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