“Only the old ones know that there’s nothing but bad luck and bad blows at sea.”
After the death of the previous third mate, Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) joins the crew of the ship Altair under Captain Will Stone (Richard Dix). Everything starts out just fine. Tom gets along good with the captain. The only problem is that a crewman is found dead before they even leave port. The captain says he was an old man and that it was probably heart failure. When an unsecured hook almost kills another crewman the captain’s reasoning for his orders seem a little convoluted. Then another crew member develops appendicitis. Being directed by a doctor over the radio the captain is charged with removing it. When he freezes Tom takes over and performs the surgery. Trying not to embarrass the captain Tom asks the radio operator not to say anything.
One of the crew, Louie tells the captain he should pull in to port and take on a couple crewmen to replace the two missing crew members. The captain says "You know there are captains who might hold this against you, Louie." Not long after that an “accident” kills Louie. Merriam knows the captain was responsible. When the ship pulls into San Sebastian Tom reports the incident and his belief of the captain’s insanity. During the board of inquiry the crew, being terrified of retribution from the captain, will not back his claims. Tom decides to leave the Altair.
On shore Tom gets into a fight and is knocked unconscious. One of the crew who is not aware of his leaving the ship has him brought onboard. When Tom wakes up he is at sea again under the rule of the captain’s whims. The pathologically insane captain’s whims. Tom’s fears are reinforced when the captain says to him "You know, Mr. Merriam, there are some captains who would hold this against you."
Another miss-titled gem, “The Ghost Ship” was released in 1943 and was directed by Mark Robson. This is Val Lewton’s fifth movie for RKO studios. Like all of Val Lewton’s productions this one is also not exactly a horror movie. It is a psychological thriller. Although Lewton pushed to be able to do a comedy RKO was more inclined to have Lewton do another horror movie. Since the sets for “Pacific Liner” 1939 were still in existence, RKO had Lewton tailor his script to fit the sets. One existing set, one man with a vast imagination and Ta Da. “The Ghost Ship.”
When “The Ghost Ship” was released in 1943 a lawsuit was filed against Lewton and RKO by two writers who claimed that the script was plagiarized. Of course this was all denied. However, Lewton and RKO lost. The film was pulled and out of circulation for some 60 years or so. What brought it back from obscurity is a good question. I believe the copyright was not renewed and it fell into public domain.
It’s a shame that movies like “The Ghost Ship” and the others done by Lewton are considered “B” movies. It’s true that the budgets were small and sometimes the titles don’t match the movies, but the movies themselves are top notch. In its hay-day RKO was a well known film studio and it is in no small measure because of Lewton that RKO itself survived as long as it did. As with the other Lewton films “The Ghost Ship” is a combination of great acting, atmosphere and writing. No matter who wrote it.