The mad captain of a coastal freighter terrorises a rookie 3rd officer
(1952 RKO. Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson 69 mins)
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Screenplay by Donald Henderson Clarke from a story by Leo Mittler
Original Music by Roy Webb
Art Direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller
Richard Dix – Captain Will Stone
Russell Wade – Tom Merriam, 3rd Officer
Skelton Knaggs – Finn, the mute crewman
I’ll explain now. I told you you
had no right to kill the moth. That
its safety did not depend on you.
But I have the right to do what I
want with the men because their
safety does depend on me.
I stand ready any hour of the day
or night to give my life for their
safety and the safety of this
vessel — because I do, I have
certain rights of risk over them.
Do you understand?
At the outset, you should be aware that contrary to the expectations conjured by the film’s lurid poster, there are no nubile woman and no ghosts in this movie. Indeed, there are no women on the ship when it is at sea, where most of the action occurs. The only woman that has a significant role is a plain and very proper middle-aged spinster carrying a torch for the captain, who visits the ship in port.
A strange film, The Ghost Ship, was out of circulation for 50 years shortly after its initial release due to a plagiarism suit. Produced by Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO, it is not a horror movie but a psychodrama with a strong atmosphere of entrapment. The production team of the magnificent The Seventh Victim made earlier in the same year transferred directly to this picture. The actual story is simple and as most of the action occurs on a set, cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca, has few opportunities to bring a deeper focus to the action, though set-bound lighting and fog are used to good effect.
The film is dominated by actor Richard Dix, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Cimarron (1931), winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year. He was a big box-office draw at RKO during the 30s appearing in mystery thrillers, pot-boilers, westerns and program fillers, and appeared in the “Whistler” series of mystery films at Columbia in the mid-40s. His portrayal of the insane Captain Will Stone is masterfully understated. Bit-player Russell Wade is believable as the rookie, a role he specialised in. A suitably mysterious turn by Skelton Knaggs as Finn, the mute crewman whose dark voice-over narration adds a gothic dimension to proceedings, provides depth and a mystic counterpoint to the very real menace of the mad Captain. Finn is not just a chorus to the action as he has a pivotal role in the climactic resolution. Quite another mystery is why his contribution went uncredited.
The arc of the film is the cat-and-mouse game between the captain and his 3rd officer, who has no escape as he is trapped on the ship commanded by his pursuer. The terror of the 3rd officer’s entrapment is brilliantly portrayed in his cabin one night when each sound is ominous, and the sinister crescendo progressively pushes him further and further into a paralytic terror.
The calm exterior of the captain has the rest of the crew fooled, and the young man’s isolation is desperate, with the claustrophobic tension sustained right into the brutal climax.
A film you might think is slight immediately after viewing, subconsciously insinuates itself into your memory. A must see movie.
FINN (voice-over narration):
The man is dead. The waters of the
sea are open to us. With his blood
we have bought passage. There will
be the agony of dying and another
death before we come to land again.
Men’s lives are the red coin thrown
into the sea so that we may come
and go across the waters.