New remastered restorations of Val Lewton pictures? We’re there. This terrific double bill gives us two Lewton shockers that are in no way ‘lesser’. The progressive psycho killer picture The Ghost Ship suffered a legal setback and disappeared for almost fifty years; it’s a masterpiece of taste and tone. Bedlam is a costume picture with an ideal role for Boris Karloff, and multiple eerie moments worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. Both movies exhibit interesting storytelling techniques, too. RKO should have promoted Lewton to A pictures, as they did his collaborators Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson.
The Ghost Ship + Bedlam
Warner Archive Collection
1943 + 1946 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date October 12, 2021 / 24.99
Starring: Richard Dix, Edith Barrett; Boris Karloff, Anna Lee.
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Directors: Albert S. D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Original Music: Roy Webb
Written by Donald Henderson Clarke; Carlos Keith & Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Directed by Mark Robson
In the middle 1970s local revival houses in Los Angeles had a field day reviving excellent 35mm prints of RKO classics — the Vagabond, the Encore, etc.. We saw terrific prints from the 1950s of King Kong and The Thing from Another World, but also to-die-for 35mm on the Val Lewton movies that just a few years before had been all but forgotten by all but hardcore horror fans. Just the same The Seventh Victim was a no show, as was Youth Runs Wild — which judging by the tattered remnant that shows on TCM, needs some serious research and restoration. When I ordered The Seventh Victim in 16mm, the Films Incorporated booker tried to talk me out of it. I couldn’t tell if she wanted to protect the company’s only print, or if she didn’t like movies about devil cults.
Bedlam looked terrific on the Vagabond screen, where I could see for myself the qualities that author Joel Siegel extolled in his book Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror. But The Ghost Ship had been AWOL since a few months after its release in 1943; Siegel had to travel to a rural TV station in Kentucky to view a 16mm print — how it got there or even came to be struck was a mystery. It wasn’t until 1991 or so that it was legally cleared and we rushed to a theater on Sunset Blvd. to see a special screening — on a Sunday morning. It was just as good as Joel Siegel said it was.
The Warner Archive Collection’s The Ghost Ship + Bedlam double bill is a welcome release indeed. Both were directed by Lewton’s protégé Mark Robson; and both were shot by Lewton’s definitive cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca.
The Ghost Ship
1943 / 69 min.
Starring Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Ben Bard, Skelton Sknaggs, Lawrence Tierney, Sir Lancelot.
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction Albert S. D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Film Editor John Lockert
Original Music Roy Webb
Written by Donald Henderson Clarke
Directed by Mark Robson
The Ghost Ship has a uniquely strange history. Almost immediately after its release a lawsuit was filed claiming that Lewton had seen and copied a script that had been submitted to the studio. The front office was willing to settle but Lewton insisted on a court fight. RKO lost and as a result the movie had to be withdrawn from distribution. It became a Ghost Film, disappearing from authorized public performances for 48 years. This Lewton fan memorized Joel Siegel’s chapter on The Ghost Ship convinced the film would never surface.
The fine thriller casts fading matinee idol Richard Dix as a demented sea captain. Young actor Russell Wade had a bit in The Leopard Man and here gets his chance at a leading role. He’s not all that great an actor but he has an open quality that Lewton must have liked — he makes for an acceptable passive hero, a nice guy.
Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) excitedly assumes his position as third officer on the freighter Altair. Captain Will Stone (Richard Dix) is a curious man who believes that the responsibility of command bestows extra-legal rights. Strange deaths aboard ship combined with Stone’s erratic behavior make it clear to Tom that he’s signed on to serve a psychopath.
Lovers of Val Lewton will recognize the producer’s personal stamp. The melancholy crew of the Altair are another group of isolated, lonely people, the norm for the Lewton ‘multiverse.’ The tale is partly narrated by ‘Finn The Mute’ (Skelton Knaggs) via a haunting stream-of-consciousness voiceover. As he knows all the secrets on board, Finn vows to protect the young Merriam.
In 1943 a movie madman was likely to be a simple evildoer motivated by greed, lust or megalomania. Richard Dix’s groundbreaking psycho killer speaks calmly and exudes authority. Thus The Ghost Ship more or less defines the concept of the psycho killer, the modern kind that in most circumstances behaves like ‘everyone else.’ Captain Stone is a ‘horror of personality’ madman fifteen years before the movies The Night Runner and Psycho. In normal conversation Captain Stone is warm and congenial, but he has an eye out for sailors that displease him, even for petty reasons. He casually plots the demise of crewmen he feels are unfit to serve. If the story is influenced by anything, it’s Jack London’s The Sea Wolf — the idea that the captain of a ship at sea might believe himself to be The Law, and maybe even God. The later The Caine Mutiny might owe it an idea or two.
Stopping off in a South American port, Captain Stone meets his girlfriend Ellen Roberts (Edith Barrett), and tells her quietly and calmly that he fears he’s going insane. That makes The Ghost Ship one of the few movies since Fritz Lang’s “M” to seriously tackle a psychotic’s perplexed state of mind — Stone’s compulsion to kill is some kind of perverse coping mechanism. Ms. Barrett wore old-age makeup when she played a doctor in I Walked with a Zombie; typical of Val Lewton, the non-glamorous actress is given a chance to shine, as an ordinary person who is naturally pretty.
Young Tom Merriam alone can see the madness because Stone confides in him, stating his twisted philosophy: because a Captain is responsible for the lives of his crew, he has the authority to take those same lives. When Merriam tries to call attention to the mad captain, other crewmembers shun him as they would a Jonah. Tom’s honest concern is met with doubt, derision and hostility. A frighteningly credible logic is at work — Merriam sensibly leaves the ship, but a crazy coincidence sees him carried back on board while unconscious. By this time Merriam is so unpopular that none of the crew want to talk to him. He goes directly onto Captain Stone’s ‘must eliminate’ list, as soon as a convincing accident can be arranged.
The script exploits the shipboard environment, depicting hazards that seamen might encounter. When a loose cargo hook swings about madly in a rough sea, Captain Stone purposely ignores it, as if he wants to see it hurt somebody. A complaint by the unhappy sailor Louie Parker results in a macabre death, in an anchor-chain compartment as it fills with crushingly heavy iron links. The other unusually violent scene in The Ghost Ship is a surprisingly gruesome knife fight, when Captain Stone attacks Finn the Mute. We see a stomach slashed, and blood runs from Finn’s hand when he’s forced to grip the Captain’s blade.
Louie Parker was played by the un-billed Lawrence Tierney, who was forever grateful to Lewton for the break; the actor would soon be starring in RKO crime pictures and films noir. The unusual actor Skelton Knaggs isn’t even billed; he reappears briefly in Lewton’s Isle of the Dead and has a somewhat bigger role in this disc’s companion feature Bedlam. Also featured are Sir Lancelot of I Walked With a Zombie and Curse of the Cat People, and the eccentric leader of the Palladists in The Seventh Victim, Ben Bard.
The Ghost Ship looks sensational on Blu, where the extra resolution lends extra depth and mood to the many foggy scenes. Some of the shots of the Altair are library stock, including a view of King Kong’s tramp steamer Venture, flopped to obscure the painted name on its bow. This writer owns a beautiful original stone-litho poster for the film that bears a 1948 release date: RKO must have generated posters for reissue, not knowing it was legally un-releasable.
It appears that this superb encoding of The Ghost Ship does have a slight mistake: online watchdogs report that a tiny animated moth in one shot has been eliminated, perhaps by an automatic dirt-removal tool. I checked the old DVD and confirmed that it was indeed there before. Its absence is definitely not a deal-breaker.
1946 / 79 min.
Starring Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser, Glenn Vernon, Skelton Knaggs, Ian Wolfe, Jason Robards Sr., Joan Newton, Elizabeth Russell, Robert Clarke, Ellen Corby.
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction Albert S. D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Film Editor Lyle Boyer
Original Music Roy Webb
Written by Carlos Keith, Mark Robson
Directed by Mark Robson
Val Lewton may be the only Hollywood producer inspired to base two period costume movies on classic artworks. It doesn’t seem likely that the titles for Isle of the Dead and Bedlam were suggested by the studio. Val Lewton had initially blanched when actor Boris Karloff was assigned to his unit — he worried that a star would want to share control of the project. Lewton instead found Karloff a willing collaborator, excited to act in dramas more sophisticated than those being offered him by other studios. Their terrific The Body Snatcher is a refined classic with one of Karloff’s very best screen performances.
Lewton’s horror career came to an end with Bedlam, an accurate and spirited historical recreation that shows his great skill with period pictures. It’s too bad that those kinds of films weren’t a growing trend in the late 1940s — when Lewton attempted a contemporary comedy at MGM he stumbled badly. Lewton’s phenomenal burst of creativity was partly a result of the unusual wartime conditions – the studio had too much on its agenda to micro-manage his little B-Picture office, partly made of cast-off personnel from the discredited Orson Welles unit.
This time out Val Lewton wrote the screenplay under his Carlos Keith alias, with Mark Robson. It’s London, in 1761. The proud Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is a gentleman’s companion, and is quick to let people know that she’s not a kept woman. She offends her piggish client Lord Mortimer (Billy House) by protesting conditions at St. Mary of Bethlehem asylum (aka Bedlam), where the corrupt, toadying Apothecary General George Sims (Boris Karloff) lines his pockets by using his ‘loonies’ as party entertainment. The proud Nell has little use for Quaker stonemason Hannay (Richard Fraser), who sees the empathy in her face on a visit to Bedlam. Rashly over-confident, Nell rudely insults Sims, unaware that the bitter turnkey has already used his position of authority to have personal enemies committed to Bedlam. He inveigles Lord Mortimer to have her declared insane. Trapped in a chamber of horrors, Nell must rely on her wits — and her relationship with her fellow ‘loonies’ — to effect an escape.
Fans may prefer the more violent The Body Snatcher but for originality and macabre thrills the classy Bedlam is just as good. We get menace in a number of sophisticated forms, all related to power and influence in an unjust society. The first unforgettable image image is that of Sims’ loony-performer, a boy painted gold, chokes on his own blocked pores for the amusement of the corrupt rich.
Nell Bowen’s smart-mouthed sass is indulged until her criticisms inflame her rich benefactor, who doesn’t need much prompting by the scheming Master Sims to denounce her as insane. This has to be the best performance of actress Anna Lee, who received few if any leading roles in the Hollywood part of her career. If Bedlam were a more prestigious ‘A’ production the part of Nell Bowen might attract a top star like Katharine Hepburn, Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. You know, ‘The Snake Pit‘ but with lace corsets. I’m surprised that the story of Nell Bowen hasn’t been remade as a vehicle for a modern actress looking for an ‘assertive and empowered’ star vehicle.
The story is less about Good versus Evil than about meanness versus enlightenment. Richard Fraser’s Quaker gives Nell sound advice and an excellent Christian example, but she develops a conscience on her own, evolving from a selfish butterfly into a social progressive. Master Sims has grown to enjoy his sadism, but even he is allowed a measure of humanity. He’s merely another relatively powerless functionary who must scheme to retain his shaky station, in a system of privilege where favor can be found only by flattering vain men of power. It’s a weighty role that lets Boris Karloff flex his full talent. Although his temperament is very different, Sims seems a cousin to Robert Ryan’s malevolent John Claggart in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd.
Lewton’s asylum replicates a famous Hogarth engraving, likely known to 1% of Lewton’s audience. Bedlam is a scary place but of course not as wretchedly filthy as would be a real asylum, or a debtors’ prison from the same era. The disturbed residents are dangerous because they’re unpredictable. When one strange inmate finally speaks, he repeats a single line of dialogue: “Split ‘im in two!” Hinting at sexual molestation, Master Sims always greets the silent woman he calls ‘The Dove’ by stroking her cheek. She just stands and stares, as if a traumatic rape was what got her into Bedlam in the first place.
The writers Robson and Lewton slip in scores of sly jokes. A madman who thinks he’s a lawyer (Ian Wolfe) demonstrates how his scribbles have invented animation; he talks about putting a light behind his drawing-stories and projecting them on a wall… an idea his fellow inmates think is real lunacy. An alcoholic writer self-incarcerates just so he can stay away from liquor and support his family. That odd situation that aligns with Val Lewton’s own habit of holing up in tiny hotel rooms when he needed to rewrite a script — or write an entire book — over a single weekend.
This time around, Lewton’s aesthetic experiment is applied to the Hogarth engravings that inspired the movie. They’re presented in an unusual way: viewers will need to freeze-frame their Blu-ray players to see them clearly. The Hogarth artworks are integrated into the transitions, as a center element between two scenes. Sandwiched in a double dissolve, the paintings are only on screen by themselves for two or three frames. It’s an elegant effect.
The exciting conclusion puts Nell in the precarious situation of having to depend on a mindless giant to help her escape. Meanwhile, Master Sims suffers the revenge of his inmates through a Marat/Sade-like tribunal of Loonies: “Split ‘im in two!” The film is capped by a subtle, horrific shot that ends Lewton’s ninth shocker on a high note worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, I think it’s the most understated, subtly effective ‘Poe Moment’ in movie history, a sterling example of quiet, cold-blooded terror on film.
Was Val Lewton suited to mainstream film producing? Bedlam charms viewers that don’t normally care for screen horror, yet it wasn’t a success at the box office. Part of the problem may have been a slightly higher budget, but conventional wisdom would likely guess that Robson and Lewton erred by not presenting an engaging romantic subplot.
Any potential romance in Lewton’s films is melancholy or ill-fated; I can’t recall a single healthy, lusty kiss. Nell Bowen and her ethical stonemason friend seem destined to become pleasantly passionate reformers, but that’s not the kind of passion postwar audiences were after. Perhaps the word Bedlam was just too refined. Or conversely, did it make people think of bedbugs? Never mind, this is must-see classic horror.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray encodings of The Ghost Ship and Bedlam are major improvements over everything seen previous; I was able to compare both pictures to recent TCM showings, and the images are darker and richer than those compressed cablecasts. Roy Webb’s film scores are just as impressive — his music for 18th century London has just the right flavor. The WAC’s packaging calls out trailers but I couldn’t find any in the disc menus.
The Ghost Ship carries no extras. Bedlam benefits from an early commentary by expert Tom Weaver, an exhaustively researched fact-track that subjects Lewton, his films and Bedlam to a close examination. It then goes further to uncover facts about the history of St. Mary of Bethlehem hospital and the commercial career of Hogarth. The artist smartly waited for an English copyright law to pass before publishing his series of ‘exploitation’ engravings called Rake’s Progress. Talking fast and somehow staying on point without even pausing to breathe, Weaver is an object lesson on how to deliver a research-based commentary. We Lewton fans who have read a book or two will still be amazed at how much more there is to know.
Back in film school, I studied Val Lewton’s little gems to see how ‘A’ level movies could be made on ‘B’ picture budgets. But his pictures don’t offer a formula for brilliance without resources. Lewton’s unit may have been cash-poor but it had access to formidable RKO artisans itching to contribute to worthwhile movies. The real brilliance in Lewton’s films comes from his storytelling talent and his creative independence. Few studio producers before or after enjoyed (briefly) as much creative freedom, a blessing more valuable than a larger budget.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Ghost Ship + Bedlam
Movies: both Excellent
Supplements: Trailers; audio commentary by Tom Weaver on Bedlam.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson