Ghost Ship - 1943
RKO production 431
Directed by Mark Robson
Production start August 3, 1943
Production end August 28, 1943
Running time 69 minutes
For a long time this was considered the "lost" Lewton film from his RKO years. As Ken mentions on his Lewton Home Page (no longer online), the film came about mainly through RKO execs telling Lewton to make a film using the expensive left-over set from 1939's Pacific Liner. This is not the same as handing him a title (like Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie) and being told to 'make a film to go with it,' but it is certainly similar. The film was also intended to be a movie for actor Richard Dix to be presented in a favorably vehicle for his last contract role at RKO (Dix is Captain Sloan).
The film itself was unseen for decades because of a lawsuit brought against RKO claiming the movie plagiarized an unsolicited script that was dropped off (and according to Lewton, never read) at Lewton's office by two script writers. The plaintiff's threatened a $50,000 lawsuit but also offered to settle for $700. In a letter to his mother (which is partially reprinted in Joel E. Siegel's book Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror) Lewton says he was outraged by the blatant blackmail and refused to settle though RKO lawyers encouraged him to do so. In court, RKO lost the case and had to pay $25,000 in damages because, according to Lewton, they could not in court prove that they might not have seen the script in question. This decision came down shortly after the premiere of Ghost Ship which then had to be withdrawn. In limbo afterward, it ended up a part of a list of films sold by RKO to television in the 1950s and then was shown only rarely as the film was legally not allowed to be distributed.
The Ghost Ship has superficial elements that seem borrowed from the novel's Moby Dick and The Sea Wolf. For example, in an initial scene, the blind beggar who can tell things from a sailor's walk and other sounds, and who also predicts - accurately - that the Altair is a 'bad ship' - this reminded me of the beggar Elijah from Moby Dick. Also, as 3rd officer (and story hero) Tom Merriman becomes certain of his captain's derangement, and in his trying to convince his crew mates of this only causes the same reaction as that of the crew in Moby Dick 's Pequad - i.e., they don't want to hear about it, the ships captain is virtually a "god" when at sea, and has the blind obedience of almost everyone. The character Captain Stone (played by RIchard Dix) has a kind of philosophical attitude and force of character not unlike THE SEA WOLF's captain, Wolf Larson.
Besides that, though, the film is truly a Lewtonesque affair, and considering the psychological dilemmas of Captain Stone (a self-fear that controls him and then finally runs amok) it has more in common with The Cat People than with any of Lewton's other films.
For a story based almost entirely at sea, the sea plays a very minor role. The plot could play out just as easily aboard a space ship or wagon train, since it revolves chiefly around the isolation of a group of men with a tyrannical leader. Being as the film was made during WW2, I wonder if Lewton used it to typify the abuses (and lunacy) of the dictator powers. The authority-worshipping Captain Stone could easily function as a leader of a country that has qualms, but not the guts, to question the authority of a power-mad leader (like NAZI-era Germans).
An unusual feature of the film is the soliloquy voice-overs of the mute sailor Fenn (Skelton Knaggs). Regarded by his crewmates as something akin to a retarded man, Fenn actually is a watchful and astute judge of character and events. He also plays perhaps the most pivital role in the movie.