The following review contains plot spoilers!
Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood to take the helm on his first ever American produced picture, “Rebecca”, for David O. Selznick, not long before the outbreak of World War Two, and was already shooting the movie when Britain finally declared itself at war with Germany. As most British studios were shutting down for the duration of the conflict, the British Government felt it best that, like Alexander Korda, Hitchcock should remain in the U.S. and aid the British war effort by doing what he did best (although there was some hurtful bad publicity generated from the decision at first, when Hitch’s former producer Michael Balcon publicly accused him of deserting his home country in her hour of need). Thus the urgent necessity of appreciating and addressing the grave threat posed by Nazism can be found driving the plotlines of many of Hitchcock’s earliest American thrillers, notably “Foreign Correspondent” and “Saboteur”. Hitchcock’s principle aim with pictures such as these was to encourage and cajole a then-still-uncertain U.S. public into backing the war effort and joining in on the side of the Allied Forces, but by the time “Saboteur” was actually released, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had already decided the issue for him. The director then made several classic suspense thrillers that were not obviously rooted in the horrors of the war -- namely “Suspicion” and “Shadow of a Doubt”; at this time, Selznick was simply loaning out Hitchcock’s skills to other studios during a period when he had himself withdrawn from movie production, and the only thing Hitch directed for the man himself during this interim period was a seven-minute short starring Jennifer Jones, appealing for audiences to buy their war bonds. But Hitchcock was anxious also to make a more direct statement about the perilous situation the allied world was being plunged into, and to shape a more overt attempt to directly help his home country in its war effort. This would lead to him briefly returning to Britain in the spring of 1944 in order to shoot two short films for the Ministry of Information in aid of the Free French movement. But before this short interlude in his Hollywood career, there came “Lifeboat”: Hitch’s only film for 20th Century Fox and the most profound statement on contemporary world affairs to be found in the director’s entire oeuvre.
Hitchcock couldn’t resist wedding this attempt to forego the expansive playground of his usual thriller territory in pursuit of a more direct social message about the war, to a technical challenge, that had long since fascinated him: the idea of restricting a feature-length film to a confined setting (such as a phone booth for instance) and then methodically setting out to solve the challenge of how to make such a limited space pay off visually and still be a cinematically satisfying experience. It’s long been held that “Lifeboat” was an early, not too successful attempt to achieve what the masterpiece “Rear Window” was able to bring off so much more satisfyingly a decade later; but what at first blush appears to be a simple allegorical plea for the democratic world to set aside all differences and unite against the organisational might of its Nazi foe, soon reveals itself to be a much more ambiguous, subversive and difficult proposition, laced with some of the director’s bleakest meditations on the dark ironies of the human condition.
The director had originally wanted Ernest Hemmingway to write the screenplay, but was more than happy to accept the work of Grapes of Wrath writer John Steinbeck instead, who provided the basic story outline in the form of his original novella, from which Hitchcock then had screenwriter Jo Swerling extract and craft a version of the tale that conformed to his own ideas about how a film set in one confined location could also function as a microcosm of democratic society in the midst of war. Ironically, given its attempt to warn of the dangers of disunity in the face of an organised well-honed threat such as that which was now being posed by Nazi Germany, initial good notices upon the film’s release in praise of its undoubted technical excellence, quickly gave way to a much more diffident response, and eventually even to outright hostility: this was a movie, after all, in which a duplicitous Nazi U-boat commander, rescued and brought aboard an American lifeboat by survivors whose ship was earlier sunk on his orders after his own submarine was subsequently torpedoed, is shown successfully manipulating and fooling his weak-willed and quarrelsome opponents, exploiting their social and political divisions and then eventually persuading them to let him assume complete control of the lifeboat, while the ever-weakening American survivors even seem gradually to slip into accepting his superiority over them.
Even more shocking is that when the other survivors finally do expose the fact that the German has been working against them the whole time, in their despair they turn into a murderous lynch mob that proceeds to literally tear him apart, the religiously inclined African American steward being the only notable exception among the group who declines to take part in this atrocity, while the pretty, sympathetic young nurse, whose slow-burning romance with a radio operator co-survivor has provided one of the film’s more delicate, humane shadings throughout, is now pictured right at the pulsing heart of the angry, accusing mob! The film was, in the end, much too intelligent and questioning to work as a straightforward propaganda piece, and failed to find general release outside of its New York run. Only later did the picture pick up something of a following, and it then became standard to dismiss the war-time claim that the film actually denigrated the Allies and portrayed the Nazi seaman as the only competent survivor among the disparate cast of characters, as a naive one, clouded by the necessary fervour of war. Hitchcock pithily remarked in his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut that some people seemed to think that a bad German couldn’t possibly be a good sailor, and that, on a purely logical level at least, it was surly only natural for a professional submarine captain to be rendered a much more able and organised leader than his civilian co-survivors!
But, of course, the film is indeed an allegory, and it was intended to portray a cross-section of contemporary American democratic society at that period in time; without doubt it certainly leaves its audience, even today, with many more questions than answers as well as a disconcerting appreciation for the wafer-thin fragility and uncertainty of the ground upon which civilised human values are often precariously forced to perch themselves. It isn’t too hard to see why a modest amount of controversy might have been generated by this work, since it is in no way ever content to settle for parroting the simplistic morale platitudes that would have so pleased the authorities and the critics alike, and made the film’s immediate box office prospects that much more palatable.
The cast enlisted to provide this 1940s microcosm with its representative archetypes is headed by the unlikely figure of Tallulah Bankhead as the sophisticated Manhattan society news reporter, Constance Porter. The infamously immodest, outrageous and sexually uninhibited American actress was awarded the New York Times Critics Circle Award for her performance in the film (which she accepted with the famous line: ‘Darlings … I was wonderful!’) and Hitchcock gives this female version of a preening peacock every opportunity to display her gaudy tail feathers to their best advantage throughout, opening the film with a slow pan amongst the wreckage in the aftermath of the sinking, and coming to rest on the immaculately dressed and styled journalist -- an incongruous spectacle amid the detritus in her mink coat and ostentatiously clunky diamond bracelet, complacently wielding the triple accessories of her carefully nurtured identity as a female independent Manhattan sophisticate: a hand-held cine-camera (with which she enthusiastically films the life or death struggles of her soon-to-be companions), notebook and typewriter. Her journey throughout the movie mirrors that of Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels in “The Birds”: having all vestiges of her urban identity (the aforementioned camera, typewriter, fur coat and eventually even the diamond bracelet) gradually stripped away from her in a series of accidents which come to symbolise her discovery of an authentic self in opposition to the self-constructed and self-absorbed cosmopolitan we’re introduced to at the top of the film. In a work that depends for any of the success it might expect to accrue entirely on its performances and on character interactions, despite the technical virtuosity Hitchcock’s husbandry brings to the project (which is, in any case, 90% below the surface of viewer consciousness, as it is part of the aim of the movie to make one forget that we never actually leave the confines of this small lifeboat for a full ninety minutes, and that that lifeboat was frequently only a series of even smaller sub-sections, constructed as a set in the studio in front of a surprisingly tiny back-projection screen), Bankhead shines, taking full advantage of her sharp dialogue and her character’s complex relationships with her fellow survivors. Off screen tales of Bankhead’s waspish run-ins with some of her co-stars are outdone by Hitchcock’s reported response when it was conveyed to him that the entire cast couldn’t help being made all too aware, during the filming of a particularly rough storm scene that was being staged in the studio tank, that the star was wearing no panties! When asked to address the problem, Hitch supposedly replied that he was undecided about which department he should consult over the matter – make-up, wardrobe or hairdressing!
Clambering aboard the lifeboat to join a commando Bankhead is a wide spectrum of 1940s society, and it’s fascinating to guess at the intended commentary on contemporary politics Steinbeck, Swirling and Hitchcock were intending with their portrait of the shifting alliances and conflicts which soon start forming amongst the set. Constance’s proletarian nemesis in the early part of the film, the tattooed crewman John Kovac (John Hodiak), is immediately the most suspicious of Willie, the German Nazi survivor -- but is conspicuously unable to decide on a course of action when he’s finally handed the opportunity to determine the direction the lifeboat should be headed in. Millionaire factory owner, Charles D. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), represents capitalism in its rawest form, and he’s the one who unthinkingly appoints himself organiser to start with (‘fellow traveller’ Kovac soon reminds him that no one has actually voted for him, yet), and then seems the most fair-minded and willing to trust the German’s motives and his seemingly sensible reasoning. But, interestingly, in the latter part of the film, long after it has been revealed to the entire group that they’ve all been fooled and that Willie has been sending them further out to sea in order to rendezvous with a German supply ship rather than towards the shores of Bermuda as he promised, Rittenhouse is the first to accept the situation and then to ‘pal up’ with the Nazi, who is by now in total control of the lifeboat and the lives of the survivors. Is this a barbed comment on the shameless pragmatism of capitalism, perhaps?
As well as the black steward, Joe (Canada Lee), a ship’s radio operator, Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn)and a young love-struck nurse, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson) there are several other occupants of the vessel who’s fates remind us of the high stakes at play: the deranged mother (Heather Angel) found clutching her dead baby and who later commits suicide in despair; and the injured seaman, Gus Smith, (William Bendix), who is suffering from gangrene in his foot. The other survivors’ response to the obvious urgent need to amputate Gus’s injured foot reveals their indecisiveness and the group’s inherent divisions. Only the German (Walter Slezak) is efficiently well-organised and commanding enough to take charge of the situation and save Gus’s life. It’s later revealed that his continued strength, even while the others are weakened and starved of food and water, is the result, not of the inherent superiority of the master race, but of Willie having secreted a hidden bottle of fresh water and vitamin pills about his person, which he has kept for himself while the others have had to go without. Willie is another Hitchcock bad guy you initially can’t help liking; we know early on that he’s up to something, but we’re not sure exactly what. There’s an early giveaway sign, though, that he’s another of Hitchcock’s “charming devils” planted in the scene where he’s shown unconcernedly yawning while the others debate how to dispose of the distraught mother’s dead baby without upsetting her; and when the amputee catches him drinking from his secret bottle of water, the callous Nazi wastes no time in ‘helping’ the hallucinating seaman whose life he earlier saved take a dive over the side. Driven by smart scripting and a suite of compelling performances though it is, Hitchcock delivers a technical triumph, keeping the film visually lively and interesting throughout and making great use of process shots and the studio tank to create a convincing setting out of next to nothing. There is no music in the film, either; the director uses the sounds of the ocean, just as he later used electronic bird noises in the scoreless “The Birds”, to create mood and amplify atmosphere in place of musical accompaniment.
“Lifeboat” looks better than any sixty-eight-year-old film has a right to on The Masters of Cinema Series new Blu-ray/DVD duel-format edition from Eureka Entertainment, which has been licenced from 20th Century Fox. But above all else the disc is a very essential purchase for all Hitchcock fans since it also includes the two short films he shot in Britain, in between the making of “Lifeboat” and his starting work on “Spellbound”, which were made as propaganda films for the MOI at the behest of his friend Sidney Bernstein. Both films (licenced from the BFI) were shot in French with French performers from the refugee acting group the Théâtre Molière, and were intended as quickie tributes to the work and bravery of the French Resistance, meant to be shown in areas of France newly liberated from the grip of the Vichy regime in order to inform their inhabitants about the activities of the anti-Nazi underground movement. Neither “Bon Voyage!” nor “Aventure Malgache” (A Madagascan Adventure) can be considered lost masterpieces: they’re rushed-looking, stagey and hugely dialogue heavy; nevertheless the Hitchcock completest will jump at the chance to have these obscurities side-by-side with the master’s other more accomplished war-time work. Interestingly, the shooting of the twist-in-the-tail “Bon Voyage!” made Hitchcock aware of just how divided the Free French movement was among its own members (just like the bickering democratic inhabitants of “Lifeboat” in fact), and the second film was an attempt to capture some of that complexity, which, like “Lifeboat” before it, once again fell afoul of those in the Liberation Movement who would’ve preferred a more straightforward heroic approach be taken. Both films (running 26 minutes and 35 minutes respectively) feature here alongside a 20 minute featurette in which the making of “Lifeboat” is efficiently detailed, plus there’s a 12 minute excerpt from Hitchcock’s audio interview with Francois Truffaut, covering their conversation about “Lifeboat” and Hitch’s British war-time work later in 1944 -- although Hitchcock himself has to remind Truffaut about this British interlude before he jumps straight on into talking about “Spellbound”. As usual, the disc also features an excellent booklet with in-depth articles on each film in the set, all three accompanied by many production stills.
No one is likely to mistake “Lifeboat” for Grade A Hitchcock, but it’s beautifully played throughout by the ensemble cast and Hitchcock has rarely been more technically on the ball than he was during the making of this picture, even managing to squeeze in his traditional cameo, despite the limited setting, by casting himself as the “before and after” subject in a newspaper advertisement for sliming pills!
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