The Ghost Ship (1943): Creaky Yet Atmospheric

Ghostship.jpg“What a hobby to pick: authority.” 

The Ghost Ship is yet another serving of shadows and sound courtesy of legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and former editor-turned-director Mark Robson. However, the film is punctuated by few dramatic notes and instead settles in to develop a world of continual foreboding. It begins with the near-ESP of a blind street peddler who warns a youthful 3rd officer (Russell Wade) about the new ship he is about to board.

Though our lead actors are fairly bland types — the kind of people who could easily be slotted into any number of similar projects — I still found myself interested in them. Because with both Richard Dix and Wade I hardly have any history with them; it’s a tabula rasa. They remain as a reminder of how many actors and actresses are all but lost to time just waiting to be discovered anew. Some give a more lasting impression than others.

But Ghost Ship‘s most intriguing characters are certainly the shipmates because each man has an element to his performance. Sparks (Edmund Glover) is probably the most affable and the closest thing to a friend the new 3rd officer has onboard. Beyond this, the radioman sprinkles in some Latin with his normal vernacular.

Our next person of interest is an all-seeing mute who is nevertheless given the courtesy of a voiceover. He is the first among seafaring hands aboard, including Boats (Dewey Robinson, a Preston Sturges regular), the calypso-singer (Sir Lancelot), and the Greek who needs his appendix taken out mid-voyage. This is a whole ordeal in its own right.

But none of this gets at the reason the Altair just might be one of the most perturbing seas vessels in the annals of maritime movies. It should be noted the previous third officer died under unusual circumstances and rather dubiously, Mr. Merriam is occupying the same room the deceased man passed away in. Another old mate is found dead on the deck without much fanfare.

There were flying coffins during WWII, but this is a floating coffin if there ever was one. Its all very curious because The Skipper seems a good, honest seaman. His new mate likes him and the men — though at times disgruntled — listen to him, for the good of the outfit.

One particularly perilous event involves a loose hook on the bridge all but ready to decapitate a mate. Still, as time progresses, the captain’s words get more and more troubling. Without blinking an eye, he says, “I have rights over their lives – I have the right to do anything for the crew – because their lives depend on me.”

He is drunk on authority. It remains his only concern, and he will do anything to maintain his image, even fabricating events involving the aforementioned appendix operation. He can raise people from the brink of death while a cascading stack of clinking chains quickly means the demise of another man. No one can prove it outright, but the captain literally holds everyone’s life in his hands.

The third officer wants no part of this scenario. However, it seems fate brings him back into the clutches of this dictatorial madman, and the net is slowly contracting around him. Only time will tell if he is stopped in his tracks before knocking off another defenseless victim.

Obviously, given the time period, we can have a guess at the allegorical references toward the crazed power hunger of Hitler. It’s not difficult to see the parallels, but I don’t think we need much of a reminder such slavish devotion is detrimental. In this regard, such a pronouncement seems altogether superfluous.

The plot is also a bit stagnant and our leads admittedly bland. We are reminded of not only wartime shortages but that these are far from A-list talents on hand. In spite of these admissions, it’s all the more astounding to consider the impression this Lewton production still manages to provide.

The bottom line is that the ideas and the visuals are still worth remembering. Because Ghost Ship is not completely derailed by its shortcomings, still casting a fine vision lingering ominously over every frame.

3/5 Stars

The Seventh Victim (1943): Lewton’s Economy Rules

Seventh-victim-poster_one_sheet.jpgWhat a picture for Kim Hunter to have come into her own (and Mark Robson for that matter). The 7th Victim is a chilling gem, and the motor to move the story forward is an audacious girl, Mary Gibson (Hunter), who makes a decision to leave her boarding school of stain glass and angelic choirs, to search after her missing big sister.

Upon arriving in New York, Mary finds out Jacqueline, in an uncharacteristic fashion, sold her profitable cosmetic company eight months prior. Something must be up. Our kiddy noir hits its paces as Mary’s intrepid investigations lead her to Dante’s Italian Restaurant. She checks in on her sister’s rented room only to find a chair and an ominous hangman’s noose.

Next, she files a claim with the missing person’s bureau and looks to hire a private eye to give her help in a city that feels generally unfriendly. However, this is not entirely the case as she makes the acquaintance of Jason, a local poet who looks to lighten up the atmosphere. Likewise, Hugh Beaumont acts as a calming force in this labyrinth of turbulence and underlying dread. Nevertheless, he warns Mary that her sister, “Lived in a world of her own fancy. Didn’t always know the truth.” Another portent of some ill fate awaiting her.

Admittedly, on a micro-level, all the pieces simply do not fit together. To understand why we only need look at what moments were potentially left on the cutting room floor. In the age of narrative incoherence in crime storytelling, The 7th Victim is among the best (or worst). The fact that in such a short time it can be so befuddling must speak to something. Dissenters might clamor this is a disjointed mess but if this is faulty storytelling there is also a sense of apprehension present, inherent to such narratives.

It cannot simply be about four scenes that were famously cut out of the picture. Though we would have gained clarity in one sense, in another these missing pieces somehow aid in this byzantine journey weaving a yarn out of relatively meager resources. The dialogue is just okay but on a macro level, it’s all very intriguing.

The creme de la creme of chiaroscuro photography occurs when Mary goes down to a mysterious shop with Mr. August on a clandestine mission that goes awry. Anyone walking into such a world would know to begin with no good will come of it, inching down a hallway of darkness.

Then, we have the curious appearance of Dr. Judd (Tom Power) from Cat People who conveniently provides another male character with information on Jacqueline’s current situation. He subsequently has deep abscesses of knowledge about a cult of Palladian Devil Worshippers operating out of Greenwich Village. Again, we have a mythology evoked with traditions and sacred texts lending credence to this widespread conspiratorial atmosphere.

Because of course, as you might have guessed already, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), now cloaked in a bob of dark hair, found herself immersed in a very foreboding crowd. They don’t look too kindly on those who let their secrets out. Another stylistically rewarding moment comes right after the woman is released from certain death and winds up wandering the darkened streets in a near dazed state. She scurries away into the shadows to evade an unknown pursuer — frantically seeking the aid of an oblivious theater troupe.

We’re on again with the perplexing waling nightmares because the film chooses to dwell in such places. But if the picture chooses to acknowledge Satanic cults the equal and opposite must be called upon to whether the evil. Though not an obviously religious man, the good psychiatrist asserts there is proof that good is superior to evil.

It comes in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He speaks the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…Deliver us from evil.” Again, the real world liturgy pads the narrative with a kind of believable ethos even as Jacqueline is still hounded by some unknowable, supernatural specter.

The final scene is a blink and you missed it circumstance. Provided a few more seconds to sink in it could have been a horrible thing. As is we hardly have time for the facts to dawn on us until the movie is over, literally seconds later. While not optimal there’s no discounting how the scene was handled visually. Even in this single moment, it says so much with what is not seen and a sound compared to so many other pictures bloated with extravagant sets and resources.

7th Victim is a reminder that sometimes our movies lack imagination, thinking money and special effects can be thrown at a story to make it novel. While this might be true on a most superficial level, sometimes it is constraints that bring out creativity and reveal to us how starkness in the right context can be a beautiful gift. Val Lewton’s horror unit is one of the small wonders of classic cinema, and they cast an indomitable shadow, widely in part to cinematographers like Nicholas Murucasa. This one is another low-lit gem. Once again economy rules.

4/5 Stars

Champion (1949)

Champion1949filmA premier boxing film and Kirk Douglas‘s big break, Champion is in the company of other Noir such as The Killers, Body and Soul, and The Set-Up. This story is about one man’s rise to the top of the business and in his business, the blood and corruption actually show.

Douglas is Midge Kelly, a fiery nobody who is trying to make ends meet with his crippled brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy). When work at a hot dog joint falls through, Midge willingly takes some quick money sparring in the boxing ring. He’s got guts, but no skill, so he thinks that’s the end of his chances. Back to working at a Diner it is, and Midge has his eyes on the proprietor’s daughter (Ruth Roman), but then he’s forced into a shotgun wedding that he’s not too fond about.

Fed up with this kind of life, he searches out a manager so he can begin the long hard odyssey to make a name for himself as a boxer. His faithful brother Connie sticks by his side as does his manager Tom Kelly. City after city, Midge keeps knocking them out rising up the ranks until he is called on to throw a match. It’s all set, but in a brief instant, the reluctant slugger splits with the program. It’s a turning point that gets him in trouble with the big boys and yet makes him a media darling with the press. The opportunistic platinum blonde Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell) realizes the tides are shifting and begins pursuing Midge.

It’s at this crossroads that Midge’s relationships begin to splinter since Diamond convinces him to take on the bigger fight manager Mr. Harris who can help catapult him to the top. The one thing Midge always had going for him was his loyalty to brother and manager, but in the pursuit of “happiness,” he lost both.

Connie returns to the home of his mother and pleads with Emma to come back with him. Their romance quietly builds as Midge’s star continues to rise. His infidelity also ascends with it. His next object after Diamond is the beautiful and more cultured Palmer Harris (Lola Albright), who also happens to be the young wife of Jerome Harris. However, he soon ditches the genuinely lovestruck girl when Harris gives him a wad a money to lay off of her. That’s the kind of man he’s become, but at least he’s Champion.

In one final effort, he tries to patch things up with Connie and Emma following the death of his mother. A rematch with Johnny Dunne is coming up and Midge hints at retirement, while also bringing Tommy back for one last hurrah. In rather predictable fashion, the fight plays out as we expect and yet as with any good noir their needs to be a little wrinkle and there is.

This film is by no means Citizen Kane, but in a sense, it is Kirk Douglas’s version of it.  Because he got the opportunity to play a character following the mold of the American Dream. He rose from the depths of poverty to become the champion of the world! And yet along the way, he became a cold-blooded, money-grubbing, scumbag who lost connection with all the people who actually cared about him. It’s the inverted American Dream — a cautionary tale on the most archetypal level. He plays Midge with the same tenacity of some of his earlier roles where he balances cold-hearted corruption with a nevertheless infectious charm.

Something else it has is a Cain and Abel type complex  — much like Force of Evil. There are the two brothers at odds, except instead of murder, there’s more of a self-destruct going on. In this respect, Connie is far from the most important character, but he is an interesting character thanks to the earnestness of Arthur Kennedy.

Also, I find it particularly interesting in terms of the women in Midge’s life. Thanks to posters I assumed Marilyn Maxwell was the main love interest, but in the film, he’s actually married to Ruth Roman’s character almost the entire film, and it seems to be Lola Albright’s character who is the only one who actually loves him. It makes for an interesting dynamic because these women are drifting in and out of his life. And he doesn’t end up with any of them. That’s the life of a Champion sometimes.

4/5 Stars