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Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship

Ethan Spigland

For almost fifty years Val Lewton's film The Ghost Ship (1943) remained a phantom film; a film referred to, written about, yet invisible. One could see haunting stills in books that set the imagination reeling, yet the film itself was impossible to see. After Lewton and RKO lost a weirdly improbable plagiarism suit, the film was withdrawn from circulation. The film critic Joel Siegel in his book on Lewton, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror, describes tracking a rare print of the film down to a TV station in Pittsburgh. Just as he sat down to watch the seemingly cursed film, the projector burst into flames. The Ghost Ship was released on DVD for the first time in 2005 as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection set, and finally became viewable.

Having lost money on prestigious films such as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, RKO hired Lewton to set up a low-budget production unit, but gave him a series of strict requirements. He was to make horror films not exceeding 75 minutes, with budgets limited to $150,000, using titles devised by the studios marketing department. Lewton embraced the challenge, and beginning with Cat People (1942), embarked on an extraordinary series of highly literate horror films that are truly sui generis. Lewton is one of the rare examples of a producer who can be considered the primary creative force behind his films--the producer as auteur. He oversaw every aspect of the films, and to various degrees had a hand in the writing of all his screenplays.

Lewton's films rely less on the monstrous or some external threat, than on primal human fears: fear of the dark, fear of solitude; fear of madness. He believed that if the menace is ambiguous enough, an audience will project their own fears onto the screen. Lewton once said: "If you make the screen dark enough, the minds eye will read anything into it you want." This stylistic approach also proved to be an excellent low budget strategy, a way of overcoming economic limitations and constraints. Ive always been struck by how the methods imposed on B filmmakers evoke the creative strategies and techniques of the avant-garde. Raul Ruiz spoke about how the incongruous juxtapositions in Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (below, right), which arose from a tight shooting schedule and the necessity of employing preexisting sets, conjure a kind of surreal poetry.

For The Ghost Ship, RKO insisted that Lewton make a movie that could utilize an elaborate ship set constructed for their 1938 production Pacific Liner (above left). As with many of Lewton's films, The Ghost Ship, directed by Mark Robson, his second collaboration with Lewton, is composed of a series of short, atmospheric scenes. Even for Lewton the film has a stark, stripped-down quality. A few objects and details sketch a setting. Low-key lighting, often from one source, throws light into the dark cramped spaces. Evocative offscreen sounds are employed selectively.

The ship is filmed as a series of fragmented and disconnected spaces. Theres a strong feeling of claustrophobia, a sense that there's no world beyond the edge of the frame. None of the scenes were actually filmed at sea. Instead, portions of the set were filmed before patently artificial rear-screen projections of the ocean and horizon. Instead of pulling us out of the narrative, this artifice heightens the psychological intensity and enhances the feeling that we are exploring the characters mental landscapes. These scenes are intercut with stock shots of ships at sea from other RKO productions. An early shot of the dark silhouette of the freighter emerging from the mist is lifted directly from King Kong (above, right). Its almost as if such shots become portals between different films; we start to imagine a meta-film that would connect the two narratives. Perhaps one about a phantom ship that sails from one film to another, endlessly.

The film begins with a series of bad omens--a Lewton hallmark. Knives gleam in a store window at night in a port, as a blind beggar enters frame singing a sea shanty. He crosses paths with Tom Merriam (Russell Wade), an officer about to embark on his maiden voyage. The beggar warns the new Third Officer of the Altair that the ship is cursed. Disregarding the advice, Merriam boards the freighter and encounters a mute sailor, the Finn, played by the British Shakespearian turned character actor, Skelton Knaggs. Throughout the film, this gnome-like character comments on the action in poetic, melancholy voiceovers. His angular, pockmarked face perfectly suits his extraordinary name. After meeting Tom, he muses: "Here is another man I will never knowI am cut off from other men." Lewton punctuates the film with moody compositions of the Finn brooding on deck, or whittling with his knife. This sad figure becomes an emblem of the film's themes of lack of communication and metaphysical isolation.

Captain Stone (Richard Dix), who looks like a cross between John Ashbery and David Lynch, welcomes Merriam in his meticulous cabin. Identification between them is established immediately. Both are orphans, lonely, serious, hard-working. They even resemble one another. Stone becomes his mentor, the father he never knew. Merriam reminds Stone of himself as a younger man. When Merriam absently tries to kill a moth circling a ceiling lamp in the captains cabin, Stone interrupts him, enigmatically proclaiming: "you cant kill that moth, its safety doesn't depend on you." Later Stone expounds on his philosophy: because he is responsible for the lives of his crew, he also has "rights of risk" over them, including the authority to put an end to their lives.

Fifteen years before Hitchcock's Psycho, The Ghost Ship stands as one of the first American films to explore a psychotic character with complexity and sympathy. Dix's portrayal is convincing and genuinely frightening because he plays it so calmly. Only a few times do we see Dix lose his composure. Perhaps Merriam's affinity with Stone, enables him alone to perceive Stones madness. Whereas at first naively impressed by the Captain, he comes to lose faith in him, and ultimately rebels against this surrogate father. As in many of Hitchcock's films, there is transference of guilt.

In the most powerful scene of the film, one that ranks among Lewton's greatest, the fastidious Stone orders Merriam to leave a massive freshly-painted cargo hook untethered, to avoid marring the finish. That night as the Altair drifts on a choppy sea, the hook begins to sway, then swing wildly on its creaking chain. Superbly edited, this scene gradually builds in tension, as the crew frantically dodge and try to secure the weight. Its a deadly pendulum beating a mad erratic time. Stone serenely watches the entire spectacle from above like a malevolent deity. Richard Dix's facial expression during the mayhem is extraordinary--a mixture of mesmerized fascination and sadistic glee.

Indeed, the ship in its entirety could be viewed as a manifestation of Stone's disturbed psyche. From a Lacanian perspective, Stone like Dr. Schreber has a problem with interpellation into the symbolic order. Lacan calls this the foreclosure of the paternal function. The Name-of-the-Father anchors a person's identity by placing him or her on the signifying chain. When it is foreclosed, there is a hole in the signifying world and delusions can irrupt into the psychotic's consciousness. According to Lacan, what is foreclosed in the symbolic returns in the real. As Stone himself confesses to Merriam, while on land he is merely a captain among others, at sea he is the Captain. In his delusion, he adopts the position of the Phallus itself.

"Who Does Not Heed the Rudder Must Face the Rock" reads the motto on a conspicuously-placed plaque in Stones cabin. Stone is both rudder (he who controls and orients the ship) and rock (he who disciplines and punishes), as his name implies. Its a closed circuit that doesn't recognize the Other. Displaying the persecution complex of the paranoiac, Stone comes to believe that anyone who even slightly questions his actions must be silenced.

When a Greek sailor develops an acute case of appendicitis, Stone must perform an emergency operation, following a surgeon's instructions broadcast over the ship's radio. When the disembodied voice instructs him to make an incision, Stone hesitates. Scalpel in hand, Stone freezes, unable to penetrate the bright rectangle of exposed flesh. It gazes back at him, like a blank screen, undercutting his delusion of omnipotence. This performance anxiety also echoes his unconsummated relationship with his long-suffering fiancée, Edith.

The film offers a fascinating dissection of various aspects of the law. After Captain Stone insists that the rope always be coiled in the direction of the sun, one of the sailors complains about the arbitrariness of his commands. He contrasts the captain's illogical orders with natural law ("if you milk a cow the wrong way she kicks") and the law of states ("if you break a law, you'll get arrested"). His friend reminds him of a captains virtually limitless powers at sea: "Aboard ship you'd better believe in the captain and forget logic... Why, the captain has more law at sea than any man, even more than than the King of Siam or the President of the United States." Establishing a state of exception aboard the Altair, the crew is stripped of even their most basic human rights. Stone's decrees only serve to affirm his own authority.

Although Lewton never directly references World War II in his films, it's always there, a ghostly presence, as Alexander Nemerov has argued in his recent book on Lewton, Icons of Grief. Made during the war, the film is a brilliant analysis of the fascist mindset and its relation to paranoia. Fearful of defying Stone, the crew and other officers refuse to acknowledge that Stone is a psychotic killer. However, their obedience and blindness to his insanity implies something deeper: it's almost as if they desire their own servitude. The film is concerned not only with the historical fascism of Hitler, but also with what Foucault has called (commenting on Deleuze and Guattari's work) "the fascism in us all," in our heads and in our everyday behavior, "the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us."

Ethan Spigland is a filmmaker and associate professor at Pratt Institute c. 2012

NEXT: A Clockwork Darkness: Subjectivity, Hawks and HALLOWEEN

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