Phantom Ship (1935)
“The Master of Mystery in a Masterpiece of Weird Thrills!”
Director: Denison Clift
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Shirley Grey, Arthur Margetson
Synopsis: During a horrific storm at sea, the crew realizes that there is a murderer among them who is killing them off one by one.
The Mystery of the Marie Celeste which, coincidentally, was the original British title of this early flick from the Hammer studio, is one that has mystified many since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought it to the public’s attention in a fictional story. The British-American merchant ship was found in the Atlantic Ocean in December 1872 with no crew aboard and one lifeboat missing. The ship was in seaworthy condition and had enough supplies aboard for six months. The crew’s belongings and valuables were aboard, but none of its crew of seven was ever seen or heard from again. It was practically recent history when Denison Clift made a speculative account of the episode in 1935, and together with his screenwriter Charles Larkworthy, he managed to come up with a fairly plausible — if typically melodramatic — scenario.
The film opens with the Marie Celeste preparing to set sail for Genoa with a cargo of alcohol. Its captain, Benjamn Briggs (Arthur Margetson) has a problem, though: he doesn’t have a crew, so he instructs his first mate, Toby Bilson (Edmund Willard) to find some men fast or he’ll find himself out of a job. Oh, and they have to be non-swearing tee-totallers because he’s bringing his new wife aboard for the voyage. The only thing is, Briggs hasn’t yet made absolutely sure that his sweetheart, Sarah (Shirley Grey) is in agreement to marrying him and then accompanying him on a sea voyage with a group of rough men who are sure to be uncouth even if they are on their best behaviour. So, while Bilson is trawling the bars trying to persuade sailors to sign on for duty on a ship that has a reputation as a bad luck vessel, Briggs swings over to Sarah’s place to seal the deal.
It turns out that he isn’t the only one with his eye on Sarah, though. Apparently, she’s been stringing along Briggs’s friend Jim Moorhead (Clifford McLaglen), the captain of another ship, into believing he’s in with a shout of walking her up the aisle. Moorhead has even taken major steps towards investing in a shop so that he won’t have to be away from her for months at a time. Considering Briggs thinks nothing of taking his new bride on a lengthy voyage for a honeymoon, it seems to me that Captain Jim might be the better pick out of the two suitors, but with that typical female logic that’s been the frustration of decent men for generations, she plumps for Briggs. But she doesn’t tell poor Jim until he turns up all excited over the way his new investment looks like growing legs. It even turns out that Jim should have had first dibs seeing as how he was already wooing Sarah when he introduced Briggs to her. So all of a sudden our no-nonsense he-man Captain Briggs is looking like a bit of a knob.
Meanwhile Bilson is struggling to recruit a full complement of seamen for the voyage, but one seaman who’s keen to sail on her is the one-armed Anton Lorenzon (Bela Lugosi), who has just returned from sea after being shanghaied six years before. Anton’s a shadow of his former self after those six years, but he still has enough about him to sign up for duty on the Marie Celeste under the assumed name of Gottlieb. Despite Lorenzon/Gottlieb’s eagerness, Briggs is still one man short when it comes time to sail. So who does he go to? Why, his old mate Jim Moorhead. Remember Jim? He’s the guy whose most heartfelt fantasies Briggs has just callously crushed. Clearly, our Briggs is not just a knob — he’s a heartless knob. Of course, Jim immediately spies an opportunity for revenge, and chooses trusted seaman Grot (Herbert Cameron) whom he instructs to ensure Briggs never makes it back from Genoa.
So, the Marie Celeste sets sail with a reluctant crew which counts amongst its number a hired killer and a one-armed half-mad sailor with an axe to grind, as well as a ripe young wife, to whom Briggs is so painfully condescending I half-expected him to pat her behind and tell her not to worry her pretty little head about anything. Really — what could go wrong? Well, it’s not long before Grot’s trying to earn that money Moorhead promised him, but all he receives is a knife in the ribs for his troubles. But he is only the first of a succession of deaths, and it quickly becomes obvious that someone is picking off the crew one by one. Who, we wonder, could the killer be?
Although he’s top-billed, Lugosi’s part amounts to little more than a supporting role, and, as usual, he hams it up something rotten, although his performance fortunately doesn’t detract from the story. Phantom Ship isn’t a great movie by any means, but that could be because there are apparently around 20 minutes missing from existing prints, which might also explain why the fates of two major characters are explained away in a couple of lines by Gottlieb. As it is, Phantom Ship still manages to entertain, although to call it a mystery is a bit of a stretch and the fact that there isn’t really one likeable character out of the entire cast makes it difficult to care what happens to any of them.
(Reviewed 24th September 2013)