Watching 1939: Torture Ship (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Torture Ship (1939)

Release date: 
Oct. 28, 1939

Cast: 
Lyle Talbot, Irving Pichel, Julie Bishop (as Jacqueline Wells), Sheila Bromley, Anthony Averill, Russell Hopton, Skelton Knaggs

Studio: 
Sigmund Neufeld Productions

Director: 
Victor Halperin

Plot:
Dr. Herbert Stander (Pichel) who wants to do experiments to learn more about the criminal mind. He charters a ship captained by his nephew, Lt. Bob Bennett (Talbot), who was unaware of his uncle’s plans. All of the passengers on the ship are criminals and will be tested by Dr. Stander. Joan Martel (Bishop/Wells) mistakenly gets on the boat and Bob tries to keep her from going under Dr. Stander’s knife.

1939 Notes:
• Sheila Bromley was in seven films released in 1939.
• Lyle Talbot was in five films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Based on Jack London’s story “A Thousand Deaths.”
• Julie Bishop was billed as Jacqueline Wells. She wasn’t billed as Julie Bishop until 1941.
• This was one of director Victor Halperin’s last films.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
There are low budget “B movies” and then there are movies that appear so low budget that you wonder if anyone went to see them.

“Torture Ship” (1939) is one of those movies.

Starring Lyle Talbot and Irving Pichel, both were established in Hollywood earlier in the decade. Talbot played leading and supporting characters in some of Warners Bros. top films of the early and mid-1930s. Pichel also acted in films, but also directed films like “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932).

Knowing their track records, “Torture Ship” is a disappointing film and a departure from their usual careers up to this point. (Yes, Lyle Talbot was in “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” 1959 but at this point, his films were better in the 1930s).

Knowing “Torture Ship” is based on a Jack London story and reading the plot, “Torture Ship” had potential … if it had a larger budget. The story follows a crazed doctor, played by Irving Pichel, who wants to see what makes the criminal tick. So he charters a boat – captained by his nephew (played by Lyle Talbot) – and loads it with acquitted criminals who he hopes to perform experiments on. A woman, played by Julie Bishop, somehow gets mixed up in the group and the captain tries to protect her from being experimented on.

The story isn’t necessarily bad. The worst part of this movie is that the picture and sound quality make this one really difficult to watch.

I feel like “Torture Ship” would have had potential if it was maybe made in 1932 with Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff as the mad doctor.

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