Val Lewton and The Ghost Ship

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Some thoughts about Val Lewton and sound in cinema, inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.

By 1943, the year Mark Robson directed The Ghost Ship, sound had become commonplace in cinema. Although Hollywood (and audiences) had quickly adapted to the new technology, there was still room for experimentation and innovation and The Ghost Ship, one of many films produced by Val Lewton, is an excellent example of this.

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge the producer. Lewton was the head of The Lewton Unit, an RKO Pictures -backed unit, dedicated to the creation of ‘horror’ films. The unit created B-movies that were characterised by low budgets, time limits (films could be no longer than 75 minutes), standing sets, sets and footage ‘borrowed’ from other films and pre-tested titles. There were also stylistic and plot-related motifs, notably atmosphere and texture, created through low-key lighting and off-screen action (according to Lewton, the audience could imagine events far worse than he could depict) and themes or repression that tested the limits of normality.

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In The Ghost Ship, Lewton and Robson explored sound, interwoven with image, to create atmospheric horror – suggesting not showing was the order of the day. The film follows a simple plot, simple because that made it all the better for embellishment. A sailor (played by Russell Wade) finds himself the only crewmember who knows that Captain Stone (Richard Dix) is insane. As with many of Lewton’s film, the plot was a surface story that concealed deeper issues – in this instance middle age, isolation, and what happens when you lose sense of right and wrong.

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There are several repeated visual motifs, one of the most obvious being the use of knives: in the shop window during the opening scene, sharpened by Finn (a mute deck hand) as Tom Merriam (Wade) arrives on the Altair, and in the final scene, when Finn and Stone are engaged in a knife fight. Introducing the knife so early on creates a strong sense of foreboding, a theme heightened by Merriam’s interaction with a blind beggar, who warns him of the dangers of the Altair. The blind man is also singing a classic sea shanty, Blow The Man Down – a sound motif that reappears later in the film and, as a result of his comments, functions as aural foreshadowing. As Merriam boards, the first person he meets is Finn and the audience is introduced to the film’s main narrator. The mute communicates via an internal monologue that only he and the audience share, he speaks the truth – although the truth may not be the same as what we can see; there’s a difference between what’s seen and what’s heard.

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One of the film’s most visually and aurally powerful scenes make use of the ship: a heavy chain and a swinging hook. Both become ‘monsters’, their physical power represented through loud and intense sounds that reach a crescendo, as the hook smashes lifeboats to smithereens and the chain is dragged into the below-deck locker: both become more than the sum of their parts and take on additional meaning and power, collect and amplify tension and add to the atmospheric conditions on-board. Lewton’s success within this genre can often be attributed to the way he was able to explore and exploit human fears – the inevitable ambiguity allows the audience to project their own fears onto the film.

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The film’s final scene uses sound in a variety of ways. Initially, an orchestral score is used to highlight Captain Stone’s emotional state, reaching a climax as he rips a frame from the wall of his cabin, and then drifting as he contemplates his subsequent actions. Outside on the deck, the most of the crew are gathered, entertained by one who’s singing a jaunty calypso song; this is in direct contrast to the action taking placing in Merriam’s cabin, where the Captain – whilst attempting to kill his third officer – is challenged by Finn. The scene is almost silent, Merriam has been dragged and gagged, Finn is a mute – the captain is unlikely to want to draw attention as his actions prove Merriam’s theories. Off-screen, the calypso song continues, the joviality underscoring the violence the audience can see, illustrating the distance between the crew and reality. This was probably one of the first times (on screen) that sound had been used as a counterpoint to violence, although the technique was developed further by Orson Welles and, much more recently, Quentin Tarantino.

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Although the film has a satisfying conclusion, it’s difficult to determine if it’s a happy ending. Finn reassures the audience that, on-board the Altair, all is back to normal and, as Merriam disembarks, the film seems to have come full circle. But questions remain: will Merriam repeat the mistakes of Captain Stone? Will the pressures of a life at see affect him? But those musings are typical Lewton, and further evidence of his desire to use film to provoke the discussion of broader issues.

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