Wednesday, September 14, 2011
THE GHOST SHIP (1943)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
THE GHOST SHIP is certainly one of the least well-known works in the oeuvre of producer Val Lewton, but after just one viewing, it's my new favorite Lewton.
Directed by Mark Robson immediately on the heels of THE SEVENTH VICTIM, the film follows another young innocent, Tom Merriam, as he secures a berth of "third officer" aboard a ship run by the authoritarian Captain Stone. As with most Lewton-produced films, the evolution of evil in the screenplay is subtle and deceptive: when Merriam first encounters Stone, the latter seems a fairly avuncular fellow, eager to find in Merriam a sort of symbolic son who will carry on his beliefs. Unfortunately, Stone's beliefs include what he calls "the right of risk," meaning his conviction that as captain he possesses the right to deal as he pleases with the lives of the men serving under him. Merriam suspects but cannot prove that the captain sets up one of the crewmen to be killed "by accident." None of the other crewmen support Merriam's suspicions, not even the intelligent radio-operator Sparks, who can quote Latin to Merriam yet chooses to hide his head in the sand (not unlike the tragic poet-character in SEVENTH VICTIM). Merriam leaves the ship but by happenstance finds himself aboard it once more as a passenger. He knows that Stone plans to kill him but up until the conclusion none of the crew will credence his fears.
The gradual exposition of Stone's subtly psychotic character is on a par with the character of Wolf Larson from Jack London's SEA WOLF, and as in London the captain's authority becomes a universal metaphor for the tyranny of authoritarians everywhere. However, though Captain Stone is a "psycho," at no time does he evince the qualities of what I term "strangeness" that would make this a film of the "uncanny" type. The title "Ghost Ship" is entirely metaphorical, used in much the same way Henrik Ibsen uses a similar metaphor in his play GHOSTS. In such works "ghosts" are the dead weight of the past, often if not always incarnated in the mistakes and failings of a previous generation, which the current generation must then seek to redeem.
Only at one point does GHOST SHIP seem "spooky," during a sequence when a cargo-hook aboard ship breaks loose from its moorings and swings wildly about, as if attempting to attack the men manning the ship.
In my SEVENTH VICTIM review I commented that many Lewton films possess what I called a "Jane Eyre myth" in that one character often supplants another one's romantic partner. This appears loosely through the character of Edith Barrett, a fortysomething woman who has maintained a relationship with Captain Stone for 15 years, though the precise nature of that relationship remains veiled. In her few scenes it's plain that she's aware that Stone has lost his humanity through his grim insistence on the captain's absolute authority. She loses the fight for Stone's soul, but she's an indirect vessel through which Merriam, after his life is saved, is fully redeemed to society, in that through Edith Merriam meets Edith's sister in the film's last scene. Clearly the sister is a substitute for Edith herself, in contrast, say, to the more direct transference of affections of a male character from one sister to another in SEVENTH VICTIM.