Before we get to movie review: a little thought experiment. Imagine being at the autocratic whims of a leader who, in the name of keeping you safe, is willing to sacrifice your freedom, trample the law, and commit unspeakable crimes. Now imagine, if you can, that this leader's power is completely unchecked. Sure, there are legal limits to their authority. There's even a perfectly legal and bloodless way to remove this power-mad dictator from his command. But, seemingly, everything works to keep the man in power. Crimes are reinterpreted as accidents. People refuse to stand up and potentially be branded troublemakers. Others chose to believe that the state of affairs is only temporary; they just need to wait it out. And still others are content with their lot, unwilling to risk what little freedom and security they already possess in a bid for more. So, in this fantasy scenario, conditions would worsen. Eventually, even the policy of keeping your nose clean and minding your own business would become impossible. To ignore the increasingly untenable would require deliberate and willful ignorance. Dissidents wouldn't just be targeted by the leader; ultimately their own friends and coworkers would isolate them as well, trying not to get dragged into a situation they know they're already a part of.
Pretty hard to imagine, hunh?
The dynamic described above is at the heart of 1944's Ghost Ship, an effective and engaging thriller that can be found packaged with The Leopard Man in the TCM Val Lewton collection.
Part suspense flick, part message picture, Ghost Ship follows the adventures of an Earnest Young Sailor taking his first long voyage. He signs on as the third mate of the Altair, a cargo ship sailing the Atlantic. On board, he meets the Captain, whom, at first, he treats like a father figure. However, after the Captain makes a spectacularly crappy choice regarding a basic safety procedure, the EYS begins to doubt the Captain's competence. These doubts become even more serious after a "troublemaker" on the crew dies in what seems to be a freak accident. Convinced the Captain is a murderer, the EYS takes his complaints to the shipping company only to have them dismissed. The EYS is dismissed from duty and loses his job.
Through a shore leave misadventure, the EYS ends up back on the Altair as it heads out to sea again. Once underway, the Captain begins to play a lethal game of cat and mouse with the sailor, all under the nose the crew which refuses to take the sailor seriously, lest they be accused of mutiny.
While billed as horror flick – as was Bedlam, another non-horror Lewton film offered in the collection - Ghost Ship is not so much horrific as it is a well-plotted, effective suspense film with just a schmeer of message pic to give it a little dramatic boost. The acting, while not brilliant, is adequate enough to carry the story along without becoming so wooden that you get distracted. Lewton second stringer Mark Robson boxes well-above his class and, with the exception of a somewhat ponderous Greek chorus device (in the form of the internal narration of mute crew member), he turns in a work that packs more visual intensity than his previous offering would suggest him capable of. He also does some wonderful stuff with sound design, most notably in his clever matching of jarring music and visuals. The best instance of this being a brutal knife fight set to the soundtrack of a Caribbean sailor's jaunty ditty – sort of a distant spiritual predecessor to Mr. Blond's torture scene set to Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You."
There's probably some mileage a historically minded viewer could get out of reading Ghost Ship as a bit of World War II Era anti-fascist propaganda. More interesting to me is the fact that the film, by avoiding overt references to the war or any particular leader, becomes a more general and, perhaps, more profound story about power and its abuses. This lack of historical context means that, despite some predictability, the flick still plays pretty fresh today.
Using the mother-approved Communities of Alberta Film Rating System, I'm giving Ghost Ship a solid Wetaskiwin. Perhaps it doesn't rank as full-fledged forgotten classic, but it is certainly an over-looked gem.