9/2/09

Hitch on the Hump: Lifeboat (1944)

Following the release of 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock was swept up into the events of World War II as pretty much everyone else was. He laid his sites on providing moral support to the French resistance with two short propaganda films, Von Voyage and Aventure malgache, but the contract that had brought him to America called, and Hitch was forced by studio head David O. Selznik to make a film for Fox studio. He had an idea in mind about a group of people trying to survive at sea. First he approached writer Earnest Hemingway to be the author of the tale, but Hemingway was otherwise engaged.

Wanting a writer who had a connection to the ocean Hitchcock turned to Old Man and the Sea scribe John Steinbeck. Hitchcock provided Steinbeck with the scenario, and the author was quite interested. Within a week, Steinbeck returned with a 100 page novelette featuring one character trapped on a boat with only his inner monolog to keep him company. Needless to say, it was not what Hitch was looking for. American novelist MacKinley Kantor took a crack at it next, but struck out after only two weeks. Next, the director brought in Frank Capra’s screenwriter Jo Swerling, and the final draft was penned by Swerling, Alma Hitchcock, producer Kenneth MacGowen, and the director himself. Hitchcock said he was looking to give the film. “a dramatic form to each of the sequences.”

The script of many authors was entitled Lifeboat, and it would become one of Hitchcock’s most unusual films An American ship gets torpedoed by a German submarine, and a small band of survivors makes their way onto a lifeboat. They include war journalist Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), hardened sailor Korvac (John Hodiak), the brainy merchant marine Sparks (Hugh Cronyn), young nurse Alice (Mary Anderson), shipping magnate Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), wounded soldier Gus (William Bendix), and ship porter Joe (Canada Lee). The German sub was also sunk, and they soon fish a German survivor, Wily (Walter Slezak) out of the water. Adrift in the middle of nowhere, they try desperately to make it to land, but they must contend with a shortage of rations, a leg gone to gangrene, exhaustion, and the sly plotting of their German captive.

The entirety of the film is set on the small boat, and going into this film, I wondered if it would keep my attention, and let me tell you, it sure did. Lifeboat does not rely on anything flashy to make the film engaging; instead it relied on a batch of really incredible performances from a great cast. Each of the characters gets some degree of development, and the microcosm comes alive in these performances. Hitchcock said he wanted the group to show that, “there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, the Nazis were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination.” This comes to light clearly as the survivors bicker and backbite as the Nazi waits and plots patiently to lead them astray. Finally he even manages to turn the tables on the divided group, and only when they finally combine efforts could they overcome the common enemy.

All of this could have faltered on the screen if it were not for the terrific cast, and their performances. I’m going to start off with the female lead in the film, and the titular lifeboat’s first passenger, Tallulah Bankhead. Ms. Bankhead had a middling motion picture career, but Hitch was determined the actress who was often prone to scandalous quotes was the right one for the role. The outspoken actress was perfect for the role of the cynical journalist, and Hitchcock stated that “the characterization by Tallulah Bankhead dominated the film.” I’m not so sure it dominated, but her character arc from cold cynic to sexual seductress to last ditch idealism is one of the best female performances I’ve seen in a Hitchcock film.

John Hodiak as the tattooed, hard ass sailor comes off a bit like a rougher version of Gable, and I really enjoyed watching him take faltering command of the lifeboat’s “crew”. Hugh Cronyn, in his second Hitchcock film, proves why his career will stretch on for decades, and his romance with Mary Anderson’s young nurse is underplayed and very, very sweet. Henry Hull, who horror fans may know from his lead role in Werewolf of London, mugs and swaggers through his role as the eccentric millionaire, and Canada Lee does what he can as Joe the porter, a role that sadly reflects the marginalizing and institutionalizes racism still so inherent in the time period.

There are two other performances that really stand out, and their stories are perhaps the most entertained of any on the tiny craft. William Bendix gives an alternately humorous and touching performance as Gus Smith, who has changed his last name from Schmidt. Gus’ leg is full of shrapnel when he boards the boat, and when it must be taken care of it falls into the hands of Wily, the German soldier, to remove the leg. Gus survives the removal, but later as he pined away for the girl he left back home who loved to dance, I could not help but pity him. Ultimately, Gus Schmidt’s fate lies at the feet of Wily, and Walter Slezak does a hell of a job. Slezak gave the Nazi all the reserved menace the role required. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that I saw his double cross coming from the moment he stepped on the ship, after all, it was 1944 and the war was at a fevered pitch. There was no way there would be a film with a nice Nazi in it released on American soil.

Hitchcock’s films usually make dramatic use of the score, but Lifeboat wisely does not contain one. I really liked that the scenes occurred with only the sounds of the water splashing against the boat or with the occasional song emanating from Canada Lee’s flute. For Lifeboat, Hitchcock chose to work with cinematographer Glen MacWilliams who he had last collaborated with 10 years earlier on the 1934 Strauss bio-pic Waltzes from Vienna. Hitchcock and MacWilliams did a wonderful job making the giant tank of water on the Fox back lot look like an endless ocean. The film also garner’s suspense through clever use of camera angles to cheat events to or away from the audiences’ view. The camera never seems to leave the tight confines of the ship, and it gives the production a wonderfully claustrophobic feeling.

Lifeboat may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some may find the tight quarters to be rather dull, but I think if you value strong performances, that you will find yourself well pleased with this film. It is also a very interesting political statement from a filmmaker who usually was more compelled to make films about the internal struggles in life. With Lifeboat, Hitchcock explored that, in a time of war, man’s inner struggles had to be put aside to beat back the tide of evil that was invading the world.

Bugg Rating


There's no Trailer for this film, but here is a great little cut of an early scene in the film.

2 comments:

  1. Great review. I love this film. I wasn't sure about it the first time I watched it. I knew about the setting. I was scared that it wouldn't hold my interest for long. I was pleasantly surprised. It's a film I definitely recommend.

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  2. I watched this movie in March, I was surprised how good it was considering the limited scenery and cast. Well acted by all, very interesting. I'm sure many would be surprised.

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