Phantom Ship (1935) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • 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 synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Title page from the film: "This story was inspired by the findings of the Attorney-General at Gibraltar, and portrays the grim sea tragedy of the American brig 'Mary Celeste', found drifting and derelict in mid-Atlantic on December 5th, 1872 - one of the strangest and most dramatic chapters in maritime history."

    New York 1872: preparations are being made for the Mary Celeste to depart the following Saturday. The cargo, a large number of barrels of alcohol, is being loaded onto the ship. Captain Benjamin Briggs [Arthur Margetson] orders first mate Toby Bilson [Edmund Willard] to recruit a crew, but warns him about who he recruits because a woman will be on board with them this time since he is about to be married.

    At her house, Ben convinces his fiancée Sarah [Shirley Grey] to come with him on the ship, but she confesses that Ben's friend Captain Jim Morehead [Clifford McLaglen] has also asked her to marry him. Jim arrives at Sarah's and they tell him that Ben now wants to marry Sarah. An argument breaks out and in anger Jim decides to leave.

    In a bar a one-armed man Anton Lorenzen [Bela Lugosi] orders a whiskey but doesn't have the money to pay. The barman calls over owner Jack Sampson [Graham Soutten] but after talking to Lorenzen for a while they realise they know him but didn't recognise him at first. Anton confesses to Jack that he had been shanghaied. Briggs meets Bilson and sends him back to the ship, then goes to Sampson's bar and asks Jack to provide him with a crew. Jack recruits various crew members from the patrons in the bar, including Tommy Duggan [George Mozart], Peter Tooley [Johnnie Schofield], Ponta Katz [Gunner Moir], Andy Gilling [Gibson Gowland] and Boas Hoffman [Ben Welden]. Lorenzen is also recruited but gives a false name (Gottlieb).

    Briggs arrives with Sarah, his new bride, to board the ship. He realises he is one crew member short so goes aboard Jim Morehead's ship to ask for an extra crew member. Jim agrees to send Grot [Herbert Cameron] over to the Mary Celeste, but before he sends him he gives Grot his wages in full and promises him a promotion should anything happen to Jim on-board the Mary Celeste's voyage.

    The ship sets sail for Gibraltar. Bilson has to use force to keep the crew in order, including Grot who complains to Ben about the food which makes Ben suspicious of him. That night Grot tries to attack Ben at the wheel but Duggan intervenes just in time and kills Grot.

    The next day, Sarah expresses her despair at the cruelty seen on board but Ben tries to reassure her that all will be fine.

    Bilson fights with Lorenzen over a black cat the latter has brought on board but they are interrupted by Ben who warns them of an approaching hurricane. While the men try to control the ship in the storm that night, one crew member Tom Goodschild [Dennis Hoey] tries to rape Sarah in her cabin, but Lorenzen has spotted him hiding in wait, enters the cabin behind him and kills him with a sword.

    Another crew member Charlie Kaye [Terrence de Marney] dies during the storm that night and is buried at sea the next day. Lorenzen mentions to Sarah that death has sailed with the ship but Ben dismisses it as sailors' superstitions.

    That night Hoffman is found by Bilson dead at the wheel having been stabbed. Ben asks him not to say anything to Sarah but soon afterwards someone tries to shoot Ben and Sarah in their cabin through a port hole. Ben and Bilson search the ship for the gunman but all of the crewmen seem to be innocent and they are unable to identify the assailant.

    Lorenzen finds Duggan has been murdered so Ben orders all hands on deck. However, Gilling does not appear so Tooley is dispatched to search for him. He finds Gilling's body and in his desperate fright Tooley commits suicide by climbing the rigging and jumping into the sea.

    Ben orders Sarah to lock herself in their cabin for safety. Bilson orders Lorenzen to take the wheel.

    Later, one of the remaining crew members Arian Harbens [J. Edward Pierce] cannot be found and neither can Captain Briggs nor his wife. The three remaining men, Bilson, Lorenzen and Katz all suspect that one of the others is the murderer. Katz convinces himself it is Bilson and goes to attack him but Bilson kills him and throws him overboard. Sure that the killer has now been dispensed with, Bilson gets drunk and suggests to Lorenzen they go to the Azores and sell the alcohol to get rich. Lorenzen reveals his real name to Bilson and that he was previously shanghaied onto the Mary Celeste. It was he who killed Briggs and his wife as they tried to escape and he hates Bilson and the ship. He shoots Bilson and throws him overboard. As the last remaining person on-board he starts laughing but is hit on the head by the yard-arm as a storm starts to rise. In his confused state he searches the ship for Bilson but falls overboard.

    The Mary Celeste is found drifting by another ship. They go aboard and find it empty except for the black cat, but there is food on the stove and an unfinished letter suggesting to them the crew left in a hurry.

    As he pays a crew member, Jim Moorhead says has no interest in the salvage but mourns for Sarah and Jim instead.

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