40×40: Phantom Ship (1935)

Directed by Denison Clift.

“If anybody should die on this ship, Mr Briggs might like a little sweet music.”

Why Did I Get This?

Bit of a cheat this one, insofar as it’s not a film that’s been gathering dust on my shelves, but a film I’ve had cued up to watch for a while now out of curiosity.

I first bookmarked it on YouTube a year or two back when I was going through a phase of watching old Lugosi movies online, but never got round to it. Then, the brilliant House Of Hammer podcast started, launching with Phantom Ship (also known as Mystery Of The Mary Celeste), as its inaugural episode, further stoking my curiosity. When it played recently as part of Talking Pictures TV’s Cellar Club, I couldn’t miss it.

If you haven’t already listened to that podcast, I’d highly recommend it, safe in the knowledge that they went into much more detail than I will – like all Late Reviews, this are just a few of my thoughts on the movie, whereas they’ve done all the research and created a really entertaining episode that actually lasts a little longer than the film.

I’m not offering spoilers or a full plot for this one – it’s easily available and not very long, and I’d recommend you seek it out to get a feel for it. I’d also then recommend listening to the House Of Hammer podcast too, because it’s a great show and the really go to town and do the film justice.

The Late Review

Phantom Ship (or Mystery Of The Mary Celeste), is a salty tale of a doomed voyage of a cargo ship carrying a soon-to-be-married couple (Shirley Grey and Arthur Margetson). Throw into the mix a bitter love rival (Clifford McLaglen), and a host of suspicious characters including Anton Lorenzen (Bela Lugosi), and as the journey continues, crew and passengers begin to disappear…

I love a Hammer film, there’s something comforting about them. Admittedly, until recently, my familiarity with them had only really dated from the 1950s onwards (although I’d read about the studio’s earlier work, I’d never seen much of it), so when House Of Hammer started up with a murder mystery starring Bela Lugosi, I was happy to dive right in.

Not that it’s really that much of a mystery, if I’m being totally honest. Admittedly, the love triangle introduced at the beginning sparks a vicious rivalry that suggests one crew member above the others – but if you’re casting Lugosi as a troubled and mysterious one-armed sailor who gives a false name to get on board a ship, all bets are on him as the villain.

He’s good, too. His entrance in a bustling dockside bar (a straightforward set, but nicely populated), as a down-and-out might not be subtle, but it’s far from some of the stagey, theatrical performances you’ll have seen elsewhere.

Clifford McLaglen as the slighted love interest, on the other hand, seems to be turned up to 11 from his first line, and might as well be twiddling a moustache throughout his scenes. Saying that, he does get to deliver great lines like “Go back to the ship and keep the men working all night on that alcohol”, which is fun.

It’s a small but unhappy crew, some of whom have been Shanghaied to work on the vessel and aren’t shy about their anger about this, immediately starting a fight with an imposing First Mate Bilson (Edmund Willard), who quickly slaps them down before ordering them to “get up or I’ll manhandle you ’til your bones come through your hide!”

I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard a finer threat in a Hammer movie.

Thematically, the film deals with murder, attempted rape, survivor’s guilt, jealousy, revenge and mutiny – a hell of a lot to cover in a short space of time. That being said, it flows well enough and moves swiftly enough that you almost get swept up in keeping up, to the point where you don’t question some of the logic.

In fact, it moves so swiftly that scenes change mid-sentence on numerous occasions, cutting off performers before they can finish a line. It’s bizarre editing when you see it once, but three or four times in the space of an hour is very strange – even the final line of the film is lost to a transition and musical swell.

Some of the sets look better than others, with the inexplicably large ship’s wheel decoration in a New York flat looking expensive but completely out of place, while the Mary B Mitchell stands in nicely for the Mary Celeste. Plenty of shots of men climbing rigging, loosing sails and pulling ropes are edited into musical interludes, but give a nice feel of a working ship.

By the time the Mary Celeste is recovered sailing empty and aimlessly at the end of the film, you might find yourself hard pushed to remember much about some of the characters and when exactly they disappeared. But you’ll have witnessed a building block of one of the biggest British film studios – there might not be a lot of recognisable Hammer tropes here if you’re only familiar with the Cushing and Lee stuff, but this is where it all started.

Verdict

It’s a short film, running at just over an hour, though a longer version was released and has since been lost to time. I’d be curious to know what was in the extra 18 minutes, and imagine it might give a slightly more satisfying send off to some of the characters who disappear off screen.

Still, as a curio Phantom Ship is well worth seeking out (I’m sure it’ll be on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV before too long, if you’d prefer to avoid YouTube), and it’s fascinating to see the foundations of the Hammer studio output being laid.

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