Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Fifteen

The Ghost Ship (1943) - Part Three

Pockmarked Angel

With the ship in dock, First Officer Bowns and deckmaster ‘Boats’ look on with undisguised contempt as Tom goes to shore in his civvies. At the offices of the Dunham shipping line, Tom asks company agent Mr Roberts about making a complaint about Captain Stone, who it is revealed is ‘an old friend’. The swiftly convened hearing finds Tom alone in his suspicions. The incident with the hook is blamed on him since he was the one who conveyed the Captain’s order not to fasten it and his pact of silence with Sparks leads them both to bite their tongues when the Greek claims that it was the Captain who saved his life. From the perspective of the world on shore, Tom’s claims seem like paranoid delusions. The pocket world of the ship suddenly seems remote, like the fog of a half-remembered dream dispersing upon waking. The Captain on shore is a different man from the Captain aboard ship, his power and authority dissipated and dispersed in the wide and busy connections of the world at large.

Mr Roberts has told the Captain that ‘Ellen will be wanting to see you’. But it is Tom that she meets first, another indication that, as the Captain has asserted, they are in some ways shadow selves. She is gazing longingly up at the ship as Tom descends with his suitcase in his hand. He confesses to her that he is leaving the ship and she offers him a lift to the hotel in her carriage. Ellen provides a female, and therefore in the context of the world of the ship, an outsider perspective. She evidently sees Tom as a younger incarnation of Captain Stone. She gently mocks his, and by extension the Captain’s intransigent and inflexible attitude, its inability to admit fallibility and thereby the chance to learn from mistakes. ‘I didn’t make a make a mistake; I couldn’t make a mistake; I’m the Captain – I’m Authority’ she chides. Her voice has the worn quality of weary understanding. She describes the Captain as ‘lonely, austere, bitter – without family or friends’ and warns of the danger of ‘condemning yourself to a bloodless, ghost-like existence’. This is the provenance of the ghost ship of the title; a ship peopled by living spectres, in thrall to their sublimated drive to power or to a superstitious belief in the mechanisms of a pre-ordained fate. Ellen vows to change this, to draw Tom and the Captain to ‘embrace warmth and life’. She hints at some change in personal circumstance which means that ‘I can now. I have the right’. She claims rights over the Captain in much the same way as he has claimed rights over the lives of his crew, but she is talking in terms not of authority and control, but of connection and partnership. We see once again the dangers of isolation, the imperative need for the society of others and for genuine communion. For love. Captain Stone follows in the line of Lewton characters such as Dr Galbraith in The Leopard Man and Jacqueline in The Seventh Victim who have become detached from any meaningful external relationship, seemingly contradicting John Donne’s assertion that ‘no man is an island’.

The Captain confesses as much to both Mr Roberts and then to Ellen, who we recognise now as the woman in the photo which lay on the chart. ‘I’ve lived a lonely life’ he says to Mr Roberts, before revealing his growing paranoia. ‘People seem to be turning against me – the boy, some of the crew’. Mr Roberts advises him to ‘see a good doctor’ and ‘find new interests’ but The Captain offhandedly rejects this admittedly rather patronising advice. ‘There are no new interests. Just authority’. The Nietzschean will to power has effectively taken him over, becoming his sole raison d’etre. From displacement activity it has hardened into a rigid carapace which has suffocated all other motivations and emotions inside. With Ellen on deck, we learn that his name is Will, a startling use of a real name denied the sailors at sea, who are distanced from each other either by dismissive nicknames, surnames or titles of rank. She reveals that after a long time, she has finally won her divorce, but does not receive the joyful response she hopes for. ‘Will’ (another symbolic name?) admits to his fear of madness, to the ‘feeling that I don’t know myself’. As Will rather than Captain Stone, he can allow such a display of vulnerability. This is the split personality which leads to such feelings of estrangement. As soon as he is back on board, in the shrunken universe circumscribed by the boundaries of the ship’s hull, he will become Stone again, compelled to control every aspect of his world.

Nazi bullies

Tom comes across Sir Lancelot being picked on by a group of leering German soldiers, who are by implication Nazis. This serves to highlight the fact that (aside from the observation that Nazis are racial supremacist thugs) Captain Stone is not himself of that stripe. An authoritarian with fascist tendencies but without a racial dimension to his Darwinian view of the inherent superiority of a select ruling elite. Tom wades in to defend the gentle Sir Lancelot from these fascist Neanderthals and is knocked senseless in the process and mistakenly carried back on board ship, which debarks before he comes to. He goes to see the Captain but is studiously ignored, before finally being given the foreboding line previously delivered to Louis, which effectively sealed his fate. Tom is sent to Coventry, given the cold shoulder by all aboard. When he tries to convince Sparks that the Captain is out to kill him and asks to send a wireless message, he is curtly told that all such messages have been banned unless the Captain personally approves them. The borders have been shut down.

an unlocked door

At night, Tom discovers that the locks have been removed from his door and later that the clasps have been taken off from his porthole window. He improvises an alarm system from torn sheets, and we get our first ‘bus’ as a cup smashes to the ground. Several instances make it clear that he is being watched, and he creeps out to the Captain’s room to break into the armoury. But such a move has been anticipated and the Captain confronts him with a gun. He tells him that he is teaching him a great lesson, that ‘authority cannot be questioned’. Guns are never actually used in the film. As has been noted, the weapons are tools put to destructive use. Here the gun is a demonstration of superior force, the fascistic maintenance of control through fear and violence. The Captain reveals the sinews of his philosophy once the skin of nebulously noble rhetoric has been stripped. ‘Who’s crazy?’ he says in a strained voice which belies the need for an answer. ‘You, who defied me and are helpless? Or I , who control your destiny and the destiny of the Altair and all the lives on board?’ He further expounds his Nietzschean ubermensch philosophy in all its raw misanthropy. ‘Men are worthless cattle, and a few men are given authority to drive them’. He would not have bothered to step in to save Sir Lancelot, merely observed with interest as the lower orders, driven by petty and unimportant pack instincts, tore each other apart. Tom, who did intervene in this situation, declares his faith in man. ‘You can’t prove that to me – even with a gun’. This amounts to throwing down the gauntlet. The Captain needs to assert the superiority of his world view so issues a challenge to take part in what amounts to a philosophical dual, a clash of beliefs. This is like an invitation to take part in a deadly game, reminding us of the chess board which lies ready at the start of the film. Any game the Captain plays he clearly has no intention of losing, since this would challenge his authority and his belief in his inherent superiority. ‘See if they’ll stand up with you against authority’, he contemptuously commands Tom.

No-one will listen to him. He attempts to steal a large needle used in the fixing of a steel rope, another tool which can be turned into a weapon, but the Captain is there to catch him out. He turns to Sparks, pleading with him that ‘I’m desperate’, but receives the cold response ‘I don’t know anything’. Sparks receives a telegram from Mr Roberts expressing Ellen’s concern for Tom. The Captain’s reply that he is not on board effectively severs him from even these close friends. He is now wholly self-contained, the impervious monad, cut off from all human relationship. All that is left is the will to authority, to control all elements of the world in his purview. We see the Finn in profile on the deck, and as Tom nervously walks past, they exchange a glance. This moment of wordless communication is enough for Finn to read him, and we hear is dreamy inner voice once more. ‘I know this man’s trouble. I see the Captain’s hatred. I know and I will watch…I will watch’. Finn thus becomes Tom’s guardian. Existing beyond the level of language, he sees things more clearly without the hypnotic fog of words, the linguistic labyrinth. They communicate on the level of empathy. He can recognise Tom’s isolation and the fear it engenders because he has experienced it himself. His considered, slowly articulated thoughts are also able to read the burning chaos of the Captain’s suppressed rage, but he is wholly in command of his own feelings and is not infected, either by anger or fear. He is a strange angel.

Back in his room, Tom finds Sparks, whose suspicions have finally been sufficiently aroused by the Captain’s mendacious response to the wireless telegram to offer help. He goes off to deliver the telegram to the First Officer, but meets the Captain outside. The two walk off slowly into the shadows, side by side. It is the walk of a condemned man and his executioner to the gallows. It is a mark of the all-pervasive air of pre-determined fate aboard ship that even Sparks, the sceptical intellectual, bows to the will of the Captain’s Authority, to its almost supernatural claim over the lives of the crew. He surreptitiously drops the telegram, however, which Finn picks up. He is, however, illiterate. All standard channels of linguistic communication are closed to him. When Tom is told by the Captain to send a wireless message conveying the news of Sparks’ murder, he assaults him, accusing him of murder. He is tied up and sedated by the crew and held in his cabin. Meanwhile, Finn brings the telegram to First Officer Bowns, with the Captain surreptitiously spying in the background. He thus overhears Bowns admitting of the possibility that he is mad, ‘if the boy is right’.

an unheeded aphorism

In the confines of his quarters, this phrase loops in his head, as if echoing in a vast empty space, but with the interrogative ‘if’ removed so that it becomes an assertion. The Captain is being confronted with his own madness, which he has privately confessed (to Ellen) that he fears being overcome by. He sees his face reflected in his aphoristically self-instructive sign, behind the words ‘who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock’. But he is far beyond the flexibility and openness to change which this counsels. Enraged by such an unpalatable self-revelation, he tears the sign from the wall and picks up a large knife, the emblematic tool/weapon the artistic arrangement of which was the opening image of the film. From this moment of inchoate rage, we cut to Sir Lancelot singing a light calypso, articulating the crew’s wilful blindness to the tyranny to which they have been alerted. ‘I like me singing, I like me fun, I like me good old West Indian rum’. These distractions serve to divert the attention from the necessity of engagement, of taking control of your own fate rather than waiting for it to hit you on the back of the head with the full force of an untethered grappling hook.

Power relationships

In Tom’s cabin, the Captain stands over his bound form with his very large knife poised over his throat. It is as foretold in shadows by his first meeting with Finn. This is an unvarnished portrayal of power relationships, of unquestioned, unchallenged authority poised over a subjucated and passively obedient class of willingly controlled sheep, ready at any time for the slaughter. It is the embodiment of Captain Stone’s philosophy. The knife is also undeniably phallic, its exaggerated size and the rigidness with which it is gripped putting it beyond claims that sometimes a knife is merely a knife. There is an obvious master and slave relationship hinted at here (one that has failed, hence the intent to murder) and perhaps even an implied element of homosexual desire. Would this explain the Captain’s failure to be overjoyed at the news of Ellen’s divorce, and add a further dimension to his inner torment? We’ve already seen hints of same sex relationships (with a domineering element) in The Seventh Victim, so maybe this isn’t such a fanciful conjecture, a retrospective application of a modern day sensibility. After all, any such relationships would certainly have to have been carefully inserted inbetween the lines in this era.

At this point Finn bursts in and a knife fight ensues, agonisingly played out in complete silence. Finn’s hand is wounded by grasping the sharp end of the knife, a recurrence of the image of the tool turned against its user. The Captain’s knife is grasped firmly in his white-knuckled fist, only finally released in the final relaxation of death. The fist grasping the knife could be a pictorial emblem of authority imposed through force, reproduced on flags and on uniforms. The final shot of the Captains corpse focuses on his stripes, the symbol of rank which has come to define his life. Finn’s voiceover concludes the final duel, in which he has stood in for the helpless Tom. This was a duel which Tom could not fight, anyway, as it required, on its philosophical plane, someone else to validate his humanist faith in man. As they stand side by side in the steering room, his inner voice intones ‘the boy is safe and his belief in men and men’s essential goodness is secure. He stands beside me in command. All is well’. He smiles for the first time, continuing ‘and we are homeward bound to San Pedro’. Both the physical and philosophical duels have been won. Finn and also the late Sparks have provided proof that Tom’s faith in man is not without ground. Back in port, the blind singer is still playing his pitch at the foot of the gangplank, his presence effectively bracketing the film. Tom once more pitches him a coin ‘for luck’, but his luck is this time sought on shore. We see the shadow of a woman greeting him. It is Ellen’s sister, who she has set up for a date. These are the shadows of what might have been for the Captain, but for Tom, they are shadows which can be made real. He has escaped from the trap of the ghost world into which the Captain had faded. Tom greets her with an arm around the shoulders, immediately establishing contact, and the two shadows walk briskly away from the ship, the blind man’s Brooklynite rendition of Blow the Man Down speeding them on their way.

Next, the exquisite childhood fairy tale and demi-sequel Curse of the Cat People.

No comments: