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In a 1951 eulogy printed in the Nation, critic Manny Farber wrote that Val Lewton's "talents were those of a mild bibliophile whose idea of 'good' cinema had much to do with using quotes from Shakespeare and Donne, bridging scenes with a rare folk song, capturing climate with a description of a West Indies dish, and, in the pensive sequences, making sure a bit player wore a period mouth instead of a modern lipsticky one. Lewton's efforts not infrequently suggested a minor approximation of Jane Eyre."
Born in Russia in 1904, Lewton moved to the United States in 1909 with his mother and his sister. A prolific writer, he soon found work in Hollywood and had his first screen credit for arranging the "revolutionary sequences" in David O. Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities (1935). In 1942, Lewton was put in charge of RKO's horror division (known as the "Snake Pit") and during the next four years, he produced eleven films, nine of them dealing with the supernatural. All of his RKO films were B-pictures and none ran longer than 80 minutes. But what made Lewton's films stand out from the pack was not his limited budget; it was, instead, his almost literary reticence, what Manny Farber called Lewton's "psychological fear of creating expensive effects." According to Farber: "He imperiled his characters in situations that didn't call for outsized melodrama and permitted the use of a journalistic camera - for example, a sailor trying to make himself heard over the din of a heavy chain that is burying him inside a ship's locker." Farber's example comes from Lewton's long-unavailable The Ghost Ship (1943).
In his 1973 book on Lewton, Joel Siegel commented that, "The Ghost Ship is among Lewton's finest achievements. One hesitates in making it sound too appetizing, for The Ghost Ship is virtually a lost film." Due to legal complications that resulted from a plagiarism suit, the film was pulled from circulation soon after its release. Thankfully, all of Lewton's RKO films are once again available. Made the year after Lewton's most famous film, Cat People (1942), The Ghost Ship is a psychological sea thriller about a young Third Officer's near-fatal attempts to warn the crew about the captain's descent into madness. Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) boards the Altair, his first ship as an officer, at the specific request of Captain Stone (Richard Dix). The Captain, whose motto is "Who Does Not Heed The Rudder Shall Meet The Rock," sees in the young officer a younger version of himself, and he tells Merriam this, noting that both men are orphans driven to make something of themselves. The physical similarity between Dix and Wade serves to highlight the film's constant reiteration of thematic "doubling" (Russell is repeatedly told how similar he is to Dix, and at the film's end, the sister of Dix's fianc meets Russell and they go off together, an obvious Hollywood coupling).
Dix had been one of Hollywood's great silent stars, making his film debut in 1921. Two years later, Dix landed himself the role as the hero in the modern-day section of DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923). Despite an Oscar nomination for the early talkie, Cimarron (1931), Dix found good roles increasingly hard to come by, and for the remainder of his career he found work only in B-pictures and serials. The Ghost Ship was a return to form for Dix, whose portrayal of the homicidal Captain Stone is one of the film's standouts.
Although The Ghost Ship came at the tail end of Dix's career, the film marked a beginning for another actor. Tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney makes his uncredited screen debut here as the jocular Louie Parker. The role is small but important and Tierney's face as he is buried in chain is certainly one of the most memorable images of the film. Tierney would only have to wait two years before his breakthrough performance in the title role of Dillinger (1945) established him as a star. He would go on to star in Born to Kill (1947), The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Shakedown (1950), and The Hoodlum (1951), though younger audiences probably best remember him as crime boss Joe Cabot in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992). Tierney died in February, 2002, but in one of his final interviews, he told the following story about Val Lewton. According to Tierney, Lewton "liked to buy things from catalogues. He used to go through the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues. He used to say it was like 'sending myself presents.' He would see something coming in the mail and get excited. He used to say he knew he had seen me before. He would ask me where he had seen me and I'd say I don't know. "Well, have you ever been to California?" I'd tell him no and ask him if he had been to New York, and he'd say "No, very little." Finally, one day he said, "Wait a minute! I figured out where I had seen you before! C'mon, come up." I went up to his studio and there were all these pictures torn out of the Sears Roebuck catalogue, and they were all me when I was modeling for them!"
In addition to Lawrence Tierney, Lewton cast several of his favorite character actors in The Ghost Ship including Ben Bard and the calypso singer Sir Lancelot as Billy Radd. Sir Lancelot also appeared in Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and gets to perform three songs in The Ghost Ship - "Blow the Man Down," "Home Dearie Home," and "I'm Billy Radd from La Trinidad."
The film was directed by Mark Robson, who had worked with Lewton the previous year, serving as the editor on Cat People, directed by Robert Wise. Wise and Robson had earlier collaborated on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), where they shared editing responsibilities (though Robson only received screen credit on the latter film). Robson directed five films for Lewton, though his big break came later, for Champion (1949), with Kirk Douglas. Though not a household name, Robson would go on to direct some of the most esteemed and popular films of his day, including The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), The Harder They Fall (1956), Peyton Place (1957), and Valley of the Dolls (1967), which, while certainly not esteemed in its day (the New York Times opined that, "Bad as Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls is as a book, the movie Mark Robson has made from it is that bad or worse"), has become a cult classic. In 1974, just four years before his death from a heart attack, Robson and Wise again joined forces when they, along with Bernard Donnenfield, formed their own production company.
While somewhat atypical in its lack of supernatural elements, The Ghost Ship is a great example of Lewton's craftsmanship. As director Robert Wise said of Lewton in 1963: "His philosophy, in addition to scaring the wits out of people, was that he had a responsibility to the millions who saw our pictures. He aimed at more than mere exploitable crook shows, and wanted their impact to result from legitimate psychological conflicts. Lewton's pictures were cheaply made, but not cheap."
Producer: Val Lewton
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: Donald Henderson Clarke
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: John Lockert
Music: Roy Webb, Constantin Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Richard Dix (Captain Will Stone), Russell Wade (Tom Merriam), Edith Barrett (Ellen Roberts), Lawrence Tierney (Louie), Ben Bard (Bowns), Edmund Glover (Jacob Winslow), Sir Lancelot (Billy Radd).
By Mark Frankel