(director: Mark Robson; screenwriters: Donald Henderson Clarke/from a story by Leo Mittler; cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca; editor: John Lockert; music: Roy Webb/Constantin Bakaleinikoff; cast: Richard Dix (Captain Will Stone), Russell Wade (Third Officer Tom Merriam), Edith Barrett (Ellen Roberts), Lawrence Tierney (Louie), Ben Bard (First Officer Bowns), Edmund Glover (Jacob ‘Sparks’ Winslow), Sir Lancelot (Billy Radd), Skelton Knaggs (Finn); Runtime: 69; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Val Lewton; RKO; 1943)

“… an impressive brooding psychological sea adventure story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Producer Val Lewton (produced “Cat People”/”I Walked With A Zombie”) called the “Chill Master”or “Sultan of the B movies,” known for getting the most scares out of his low-budget horror films, offers in The Ghost Ship an impressive brooding psychological sea adventure story. It’s a dark allegory about the abuse of power that’s told strangely enough without any ghosts. It was pulled from theaters soon after its release due to a plagiarism suit filed by playwrights Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner, who sent Lewton a copy of their play that was rejected but looked a lot like how the movie turned out. The studio lost and had to shell out $25,000 to get it released again some fifty years later. It’s directed by Mark Robson (“Isle of the Dead”/”The Seventh Victim”/”Champion”), penned by Lewton’s favorite writer Donald Henderson Clarke and based on a story by Leo Mittler. There’s an amazingly chilling scene where a sailor named Louie (Lawrence Tierney) is being crushed to death by an enormously heavy chain inside a ship’s locker and his voice can’t be heard above the din. Even the narration is unusual, as an omniscient deaf-mute named Finn (Skelton Knaggs), who turns out to be the film’s hero, communicates by letting us hear his thoughts. The film’s star is Richard Dix, who was a giant during the silents and became one of the few who successfully made the transition to talkies. Dix died six years after this film due to a heart attack, at the age of 55.

On the docks of San Pedro, the fresh faced and innocent Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) boards the merchant ship Altair, his first outing as an officer, and is not alarmed by a seer-like blind beggar he meets on the street telling him it’s a bad ship. Captain Stone (Richard Dix) paternally tells Tom upon their initial meeting that he sees in him a younger version of himself, they even resemble each other in physical appearance; Stone furthermore warmly tells Tom that they share the same driving ambition, work ethic and both were orphans. The Captain is a cleanliness freak, authority nut and his motto is “Who Does Not Heed The Rudder Shall Meet The Rock.” Tom soon learns that the third officer he’s replacing died of a heart attack in his berth and that a missing sailor turns up dead just before they sail. After a good first impression of the captain Tom changes his mind over an incident with a giant hook not being secured that he warned the captain had to be secured, as it swings out of control on the deck. The captain is more interested in the new paint job than in the men’s safety, and in private chews out Tom–telling him his authority cannot be questioned. When a sailor has an appendix attack, the captain freezes while operating and Tom has to do the operation as he receives instruction from a doctor via radio. Tom gives the captain credit for the operation out of respect for his position. When deckhand Louie complains to the captain that they are overworked because they are two men short and asks to stop at the next port and hire more men, the captain thanks him but in private seethes–calling it a case of insubordination and schemes to eliminate Louie by locking the hatch door when he’s scrubbing down the chain. Tom is convinced that power has gone to the captain’s head and that he’s a homicidal maniac, and against the advice of the Shakespeare quoting Sparks (Edmund Glover), the radio operator, reports it at the port of San Sebastian to Charlie Roberts, the head of the shipping office. But no one on the ship backs Tom at a hearing, and he quits in disgust. Charlie’s sister Ellen Roberts (Edith Barrett) has just gotten a divorce and expects to marry Stone. When she meets Tom on the docks, she feels sorry for him and fixes him up with a date with her younger sister whenever he reaches San Pedro. On the way to board another ship, Tom comes to the aid of an Altair crewman being beaten in an ugly street brawl and is knocked unconscious. The sailors are unaware that Tom quit and carry him back on board the Altair. The story loses its pulp lyrical quality and winds down in a more pedestrian manner at the conclusion, as the increasingly deranged captain aims to eliminate his guest and Tom aims to expose him as a madman killer.

Not bad for a cheapie B movie. One of Lewton’s favorites, the noted calypso singer Sir Lancelot plays deckhand Billy Radd and gets to perform three songs – “Blow the Man Down,” “Home Dearie Home,” and “I’m Billy Radd from La Trinidad.”