Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Thirteen

The Ghost Ship (1943) - Part One

The Ghost Ship, the second film which Lewton made with director Mark Robson which was released in 1943, was for some time a ‘lost’ picture, due to the actions of a couple of opportunistic hacks who sued for plagiarism. Lewton refused to back down in the face of what he saw as blatant extortion and settle out of court, but inexplicably failed to win the day in court. As a result, the film was put out of circulation for some time. It’s interesting that it should be a film which is in many ways out of step with the body of horror films upon which his reputation rests which should disappear to resurface for later rediscovery and positioning within what had by then become an established canon. Is it a horror film at all? It certainly circumvents any expectations the title might give rise to in the light of Lewton’s previous RKO pictures. In many ways it is a brisk and efficient thriller, its nautical setting merely serving as an atmospheric backdrop. But all the familiar Lewton themes are there. The danger of isolation and the importance of human connection; the hierarchies of power and the abuse of authority; the capacity for self-delusion and the use of language to perpetuate it; the play of the forces of superstition and rationalism. The atmosphere of fateful foreboding which imbues the film takes it a step beyond the realms of realism, and the ship itself becomes a gothic hulk, it’s various apparatus coming to life in threatening ways. It is the haunted house which contains the conditions of madness to which those who inhabit it for too long succumb. So yes, a horror film in the same sense that we will see that Bedlam is a horror film. The terror is of a world in which madness and reason have become inverted.

The film opens with a shot of a shop front which features an array of knives, displayed in a fanned display, like fetishistic totems. They are being sold for utilitarian use, but throughout the film, the sailors’ tools and mechanisms are turned against them, the means of labour becoming the means of death. In front of this sailors’ outfitters a blind zither player sings ‘Blow the Man Down’. He is the first of the characters we meet who fulfil the standard trio of the deaf, dumb and blind, although the deafness in this case is more wilful than real. The two who suffer from actual deafness and dumbness seem to have a more acute perception of the world and what lies in the hearts of men than those who have their full complement of senses and communicative capacity. Our protagonist, Tom Merriam, walks on to the scene and deposits a coin in the singer’s cup and receives a piece of wisdom in return. ‘It’s only the old ones know there’s nothing but bad luck and bad blows at sea’. The Altair, to which Tom is heading, is ‘a bad ship’. This immediately sets up the opposing forces of superstition, of the ‘old ways’, and the modern outlook of rationalism, of the world inherited from the Age of Reason and Enlightenment.

Tom leaves the singer at the foot of the gangplank which leads up to the Altair. He pauses before ascending. This is a threshold moment, the gangplank being a bridge between two worlds. The blind singer is the guardian at the gateway to the world of the shore, and as Tom steps on board, there is the man known as The Finn, played by Skelton Knaggs, a remarkable presence here and in Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. He is the guardian of this second gateway, standing whittling away with his knife (already the knives have emerged from their deceptively decorous display behind the safety of a plate glass window). Both are creatures of the borderlands, set to their roles by stunted senses and vocal incapacity which leave them attuned to other channels. In response to Tom’s request as to the Captain’s whereabouts, he gestures with his knife, the shadow of which seems to cut Tom’s throat. This prefiguring of the Captain’s menace and his eventual assault on Tom lends Finn an air of almost supernatural intuition. It is as if he can conjure shadows of the future from the darkness.

As Tom heads off, we hear the first of Finn’s inner voiceovers, which punctuate the film in much the same way as we have seen Lewton use visual punctuation and recurring symbolic objects in previous films (the statue in I Walked With A Zombie and the fountain in The Leopard Man). As he stares fixedly into space, we hear him dreamily intone ‘this is another man I can never know because I can never talk with him. For I am a mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men’. Again, the recurring theme of the isolation of the individual, whether imposed or self-created, is elucidated. But Finn shows a strong sense of self-knowledge. His sadness at the solitariness his condition imposes upon him is tempered by his assertion that ‘in my own silence I can hear things they cannot hear, know things they can never know’. The camera slowly glides in towards his face as he speaks, as if trying to penetrate this mysterious inner world of heightened perception. Finn is often cast in a radiance of milky moonlight, his face illuminated whilst others remain in darkness. He often seems to be almost a holy figure, and it is he who eventually emerges as Tom’s guardian when everyone else turns a deaf ear to his pleas. That this inner resolution and self-knowledge arises from his ‘own silence’ emphasises the self-deluding and obfuscatory nature of language in the film. In many ways, the fog with which the ship is often enshrouded is a fog of words.

Tom pauses outsides the captain’s cabin as if this is some sacred space, an inner sanctum which must be entered with due reverence. He is drawn away by another voice and watches as the hold is covered, a veil drawn over the dark abyss at the heart of the ship. He returns to the cabin, his position in the hierarchy precluding participation in such manual labour. The captain is not their, but his presence is imbued in various symbolically weighted objects. Indeed, he is evidently someone well acquainted with the self-conscious accumulation of personal mythology and philosophy boiled down to aphorism, as the board on the wall with the assertion ‘who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock’ attests. There is a sense that the seemingly casual arrangement of possessions in the room has in fact been carefully laid out to create an impression. The chessboard in the foreground laid out for a fresh game and the photographic portrait of a woman laid out on a nautical chart next to dividers for measuring distance both say something about a character with a coolly distant view of authority and a clearly differentiated separation of life onshore and at sea.

The Captain (who introduces himself with the hard, self-contained and unyielding name of Stone) descends into this room from above, as if from a higher plane. He declared to Tom that ‘I chose you’ and that ‘your history could have been my own at your age’. There is a clear line of descent being manufactured here, almost as if he is declaring Tom to be his inheritor, someone in whom he can imbue his worldview. His assertion that ‘we’ll get on’ is not so much an invitation to as an insistence upon friendship. When Tom reaches to grab a moth which flutters around the light, Captain Stone stops him with the first of his portentous utterances on authority: ‘you’ve no right to kill that moth. It’s safety doesn’t depend on you’. It’s a statement whose significance does not become apparent until it is revealed through the translation of words into action.

When Tom is shown to his quarters, he is told that the last third officer had died in this room. The steward observes that ‘he didn’t want to as he was funny’. This is a curious statement as it suggests that some crewmen might actively welcome death, an attitude which we’ve seen several characters adopt in Lewton’s films thus far, most starkly in The Seventh Victim. The fact that his humour is the predominant characteristic which the steward remembers gives us a retrospective hint as to why he met his end. We soon learn that Captain Stone doesn’t like jokers. Humour and mockery is a challenge to the assumed superiority of authority, which is undermined by the refusal to take it seriously and drawn out to a display of its latent violence in order to enforce obedience through fear. Charlie Chaplin’s caricature of Hitler may not have materially helped to defeat the Nazis, but it did make it difficult to watch his ranting diatribes with the sense of dread which might have been felt before his rhetorical gestures were so ably parodied.

The crew come on deck to the rough sounds of rural bagpipes. The player is known as ‘Scotty’ although he is in fact Greek. ‘In home country we play it to the sheep’ he observes, and indeed the bellows of his instrument is barely modified from the innards it’s been created from. The ship’s cargo is also to be sheep hides and other animal-based products. So we have an ex-shepherd and the by-products of slaughtered sheep. The symbolism is immediately followed up on as ‘Boats’ reads out the ship’s register. Paulo Lindstrom, who is identified as ‘The Finn’, puts his hand up, and his muteness is automatically viewed with suspicion, marking him out as a troublemaker. Difference is seen as dissent here. ‘Parker, Louis’ gives out with a camp ‘here, teacher’, which Captain Stone notes from on high as he smokes his cigar. We immediately recognise that he has no time for levity, which again represents possible dissent and a tendency towards troublesome individuality. ‘Billy Radd from the Trinidad’ marks the second appearance of Sir Lancelot in Lewton’s films, following on from his appearance in I Walked With A Zombie, and he is again given the opportunity to air his mellifluous talent for the calypso (represented on many a recording). The marked presence of Billy Radd and the Greek and various other nationalities marks this out as a ‘ship of fools’, a vessel which is a microcosm of the wider world. The symbolic use of such ships dates back to the sixteenth century, when Sebastian Brant’s The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde was published, and is generally aimed at a satirical reflection of the times. In the case of The Ghost Ship, this obviously means a time of war, and the portrayal of tyrannical authority and the failure to challenge it cannot help but be seen within that context.

The roll call ends when George Jensen fails to answer his name and his dead body is discovered in the light of a swinging lamp, shadows waxing and waning in much the same manner as they do at the climax of Psycho in the basement of Mrs Bates’ house. The Captain seems wholly unperturbed by this fatality, and it is left to The Finn’s voiceover to act as punctuation, a vocalised title card, to the scene. ‘The man is dead. With his death, the waters of the sea are open to us, but there will be other deaths and the agony of the dying before we come to land again’. Finn slowly turns to look at those beside him as if to pick out who will be the next sacrificial victim. He appears as some kind of prophetic oracle, able to read the tides of fate on which they sail. The whole scene creates a ritualistic atmosphere, the death seen as a necessary offering to the gods of the sea. It is as if ancient rites are being observed, the rational materialism of the modern world abandoned for the cyclical time of harsh and unchanging natural forces.

The ship is seen, as it often is, enveloped in fog. This serves to emphasise the fact that it is isolated in space and time, a world unto itself with its own rules, cut off from the social and political interactions which bind the wider world together. Captain Stone emphasises this as he and Tom stroll the deck. ‘In San Pedro I was just another captain’ he muses with apparent joviality. ‘At sea I am THE Captain’. Two sailors re-iterate the point as they coil the rope, one insisting that it is done according to the direction of the sun’s movement as this is the ‘law of the sea’. When his shipmate dismisses this as superstitious nonsense with no basis in logic he is told that ‘aboard ship, you’d better believe in the Captain and forget logic’. The Captain is the deity of this circumscribed realm, a gnostic demi-god whose word is law. Most crew members seem to take this as a given, an a priori assumption about the nature of things. Tom and the Captain discuss the nature of authority, after Tom admits that he just can’t see himself in terms of his rank. Captain Stone tells him that the difference in rank is like the difference between man and boy, and man and officer. To him, rank is a natural signifier of inherent superiority. As if inferring such superiority on him, he tells Tom that one day ‘he’ll learn to take great joy in it’. This hints at an element of sublimation in his pursuit of power which has already been symbolised in the woman’s photograph lying on the chart next to the dividers, and which will become more explicit later.

Tom meets ‘Sparks’, the communications officer, whose casual display of Latin knowledge (he immediately christens Tom ‘Tertius’, or Third) marks him out as an intellectual. Few people are called by their real names onboard. It is as if they have been reborn once they have left shore. Sparks is disparaging about the Captain, saying that what he has to say should be taken ‘cum grano salis’, with a grain of salt. But he has an intellectual’s distance from actual direct engagement, preferring to criticise at second hand. This disengagement is clearly more critical at a time of war, and his character thus becomes emblematic in that sense. He is openly friendly towards Tom, however, who defends the Captain by saying that he likes his way of talking, ‘the things he has to say’. He has been seduced by language, in other words. They agree to play cards, a game a few ranks down from the chess which we have seen set up in the Captain’s quarters, for which he has extended no invitations to play. The Captain, we grow to suspect, would not want to risk any possibility of losing.

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