Saturday, March 01, 2008

Val Lewton's "Ghost Ship" (1943, d. Mark Robson)

After watching 8/9ths of the Val Lewton box set, I am struck by the realization that the famous producer was making films that went far beyond the ordinary scope of the horror genre. Bedlam was a slice of history, Isle of the Dead had more to do with politics, and his other works all have strains of social commentary interweaving through their plots. Certainly there are elements of suspense and frightful situations in all of Lewton's productions, but the extent to which they are resistant to categorization is striking. There are even some observers who have likened Lewton's style to classic noir, although this is more likely attributable to budget constraints and photographic techniques than anything else.

The Ghost Ship (directed by Lewton favorite, Mark Robson) is an oddity among a string of exceptions that the noted producer delivered to the under-financed RKO studios. It concerns a developing conflict between an experienced ship captain (Richard Dix) and his novice third officer (Russell Wade) while on an overseas commercial voyage. The initial meeting between the seamen is propitious, and it appears that Will Stone (Dix) and Tom Merriam (Wade) are going to get along famously. The eager protege is anxious to profit from the experience and wisdom of his seemingly distinguished elder. Stone tells his young charge that they will have plenty of time to speak with each other during the long journey ahead.

It only takes a few days on board for questions to arise about the management style of Captain Stone. When things go wrong with an unsecured piece of hardware, and lives are unnecessarily put at risk, Officer Merriam begins to question his superior's judgment. He tentatively approaches the Captain, and is convinced that the incident was engineered in order to transmit an important lesson. Having worked his way through the initial doubt, Merriam's respect for Stone is redoubled. He resolves to observe the actions of the Captain closely, with the hopes that he will learn more than he would by merely reacting to events as they occur. Unfortunately, his mind is further troubled by what appears to be the intentional killing of a crew member.

Following a brief period of troubled introspection, Merriam decides to report his concerns to the ultimate authority- a senior agent of the shipping company that he works for. To his chagrin, he discovers that the agent and his Captain are old friends. He then makes the hard choice to quit his position altogether. Still it proves impossible for Merriam to fully extricate himself from the situation, as unlikely circumstances intercede to reverse his escape. Once again on board the ship, he is assured by Captain Stone that the earlier events will not be held against him. Of course this promise is later proven false. Things escalate quickly, and Merriam finds himself completely alone without friends, and stuck on the high seas with a man who clearly wants to exact his revenge.

The conversations between Stone and Merriam throughout The Ghost Ship illuminate two very different understandings of what it means to be an "authority". The Captain clearly believes that his relationship to his crew is that of an absolutely powerful patriarch. Since he is responsible for their lives, he feels the right to dictate the terms of their existences- even to the extent of willful termination. He is immovable in his faith that they will always act upon his orders without questioning him. It's clear that his mental heath has become imperiled during his long career at sea. So he involves Merriam in an experiment that will test the validity of his beliefs. It's clear that the filmmakers are making a crucial point involving both individuality and power. In this respect, The Ghost Ship is as message-oriented as any other Lewton movie. But it still retains enough mystery to qualify as riveting entertainment.

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