walled about with silence: the ghost ship

It begins with our hapless young protagonist, a naive and idealistic Third Officer of the ship Altair, Tom Merriam (played by the bland but inoffensive Russell Wade), encountering a blind beggar (Alec Craig) singing “Blow the Man Down” on the wharf. Merriam tosses him a coin and the blind man precisely guesses that the inexperienced young officer is in fact young, an officer, and bound for troubled waters aboard the ship. Merriam–a quick-smiling idealist with a deep faith in the innate goodness in man–genially scoffs at the poverty row Tiresias. On the ship, Merriam meets a member of the crew and politely asks him where the captain is. The crewman, an intense man with bulging eyes and the physique of someone at ease with their body, says nothing and instead motions up to the bridge with the point of the knife he has been sharpening on a whetstone. Merriam, looking uneasy for the first time, leaves the strange man to his task.

In any other film, the camera would follow Merriam as he exits the scene to meet with the captain, here played by Richard Dix. Instead, Nicholas Musuraca’s camera remains on actor Skelton Knaggs’ memorable features (he was one of Lewton’s familiar troupe of bit players) and then slowly presses in deeper as a hauntingly plaintive voice-over lures us beneath the surface of the film, to where its true power nestles:

“This is another man I can never know… because I cannot talk with him. For I am a mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men… but in my own silence… I can hear things they cannot hear… Know things they can never know.”

It’s a daring moment, but not unpleasant. It should be jarring, but instead it reminds us that we are entering the chthonic realm of dark fantasy and poetry, where blind carny seers toss off boardwalk prophecies and a mute seaman foretells his own place within the narrative just beginning to unfold. This is the horror film according to producer Val Lewton, a man who supposedly proclaimed “Death is good” when asked what the message of his film The Seventh Victim was.

When I was in my early teens, bingeing on horror films of all types–black & white silents, Universal and Hammer horrors, 1950s SF/creature feature hybrids with rubber-suited baddies, post-Night of the Living Dead shockers right up to the slashers and gore movies that were de rigueur in the early to mid-1980s–for some reason, the Val Lewton produced films slipped right by me. I knew who Lewton was, certainly, and had read about him in Carlos Clarens’ seminal 1967 study of the genre “An Illustrated History of the Horror Film,” a book I used to read over and over and over. But this was the time of Maniac, Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Go in the House. Poltergeist, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Val Lewton’s dusky psychological revenants were completely outside my range of appreciation.

In my late teens and early twenties, I got hip to Lewton. But I still felt removed from their hermetic stage bound realms, and though I could acknowledge the artistry involved, it all seemed too literary, sexless and pretentious. I hadn’t seen all of the films at that point–only Cat People (and I preferred Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake starring Nastassja Kinski), Bedlam, Isle of the Dead, and I Walked With a Zombie. All of them with wonderful visual epiphanies, flickers of brilliance–the midnight swim in Cat People, the nightmarish crypt sequence in Isle of the Dead, the after hours sojourn in I Walked With a Zombie to name just a few–but the films as a whole never worked for me. I wanted less twilight and more melodrama! Unapologetic garishness! Satanic pulp fantasias! I wanted Ingrid Pitt!

Then I came across The Seventh Victim. And the dark undercurrents flowing through it finally made it possible for me to slip into its waters and dream awake. At last! With its long noirish shadows, this tale of an innocent yet alluring damsel (played by the young Kim Hunter) who ventures to the dark city in search of her missing sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), the owner of a cosmetic factory in league with a group of banal yet menacing Satanists, is the horror film as written by Cornell Woolrich. No surprise, the Lewton team had adapted one of Woolrich’s novels, Black Alibi, to the screen in the guise of The Leopard Man. Both are splendid creations.

Entranced by The Seventh Victim, I made a point of going back and examining the other Lewton films that I could find VHS copies of. Over time, each film revealed more and more of its poverty row uniqueness to me, seducing me with its own minor key doom. The Body Snatcher, The Curse of the Cat People, and The Leopard Man were hard to come by for me, but not impossible. But there was one “forgotten” film that no one had access to.

The Ghost Ship was made in 1943, but because of a law suit brought about by two playwrights who claimed that Lewton had plagiarized a script they had submitted to RKO–a case that Lewton lost after getting the studio to fight it rather than settle–the film was pulled from distribution and shelved for decades. All but forgotten except for the knowledgeable connoisseurs of the genre, The Ghost Ship reappeared from the netherworld in the mid-1990s on laserdisc, but then disappeared again until 2005 when all of the Lewton horror films made their more affordable DVD arrival.

Perhaps because of The Ghost Ship‘s long absence, its artistic reputation seems less pronounced than its more famous infernal siblings. Unfortunate, since in many ways I find it one of the standout films of the group. Perhaps not the revelation that The Curse of the Cat People ended up being for me when I finally watched it last year, but there is plenty to savor in its straightforward compactness and ruthless examination of the misuse of authority. Captain Stone (Dix), who appears stern though fair-mined when Merriam first arrives on the ship, is anything but sane as we quickly learn. But this is no simple powermad leader, a man blind to his own hubris and other cliches. If only Captain Stone was blind to his own madness! This is a man in total control and shielded by a belief in the power of the law–the dictum of the sea which accords the captain of the ship to wield total authority over his crew. Captain Stone has a philosophy, a belief system. He has a will to power and the courage to resort to violence, if need be, to protect that power.

Considering that the film was produced during World War II, when the lengthening shadow of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan were at their apex, there’s no doubting what David Henderson Clarke’s screenplay was aiming for. But now, as the US led occupation of Iraq grinds on, the film’s metaphorical resonance shapeshifts out of its reserved seat and finds a new place at another blood-soaked table of history. It’s what all meaningful art attempts to achieve–a life outside of its time. Even poverty row horror films.

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