DVD Review Of Lifeboat
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/26/07
Sometimes greatness can be achieved in a singular way, even if the totality of a work of art is not great. This came to me upon watching one of my dad’s all time favorite films, and one which I have watched several dozen times in my life- Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 black and white Lifeboat, which is also one of the three or four best films Hitchcock ever made, and did receive Academy Award nominations for Best Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay. While I am not a rabid devotee of Hitchcock, because most of his thrillers are filled with rather cardboard cutout characters, despite the films’ technical excellence, this is still probably my favorite Hitchcock film; not only because of the memories of watching it with my dad, but because it is one of the least Hitchcockian films in his canon- in terms of its relative lack of formulaic suspense, and because of the great and inimitable Tallulah Bankhead (one of my dad’s favorite actresses), who utterly dominates every scene of the film she’s in.
The film’s greatness comes in the way it realistically sketches human reactions and nature in extremis, even as it relies on some of the grossest human caricatures, stereotypes, and is a blatant bit of agitprop. That said, and given the limitations of having the film set totally in a boat, that Hitchcock comes even within spitting distance of the film being a great work of art (it’s not; it misses by a hair, for the flaws mentioned) is, itself, evidence of greatness at work. It is also one of the most brilliant and odd character studies on film.
The very schizophrenic screenplay, which alternately depicts real human emotions in characters blatantly constructed to teach a didactic lesson, and be props to push the tale forward (i.e.- how convenient it is to have both a doctor and a nurse in the same boat when another character’s leg needs to be amputated; among many), and then reduces them to utter stereotypes, was adapted from an original novella, of the same title, that Hitchcock commissioned John Steinbeck to write. When Steinbeck was done, and went off to the Second World War, Hitchcock hired playwright Jo Swerling to punch up the dialogue.
The film opens with a brilliant ellipsis. We hear and see what appears to be an explosion, and then see the smokestack of an Allied merchant marine freighter going under the waves. It has just been torpedoed and sunk by a Nazi U-Boat. Then we focus in on a lone lifeboat in fog, as various objects float by: a copy of the New Yorker, playing cards, a chessboard, and a corpse, face down in the water. There is a beautiful, well-coiffed, fortysomething woman alone in it, and seemingly without a care in the world. She is obviously high class, glamorous, and worried about a run in her nylons. This says much about her, as she is the film’s central character, Constance Powers (Bankhead)- a sassy and witty Dorothy Parker type world-wise magazine reporter who has filmed the whole naval gun battle and ship sinking, and believes it is her ticket to journalistic immortality. The first of the other survivors to make it to the lifeboat is one of the sunk ship’s engine crew members, John Kovac (John Hodiak), a gritty blue collar guy from Chicago, with Communist leanings. He and Connie don’t get along, especially after he accidentally knocks her camera into the sea, losing her shots she felt were worth a million dollars. It is the first of many things Connie will lose over the course of the film’s 96 minutes, as she humanizes from a shrill social butterfly to a real human being. Then, several others make it aboard: there is Gus Smith (William Bendix), a co-worker of Kovac’s, whose leg is severely injured, the beautiful; young brunet nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson)- who looks like a more cherubic Judy Garland; a British seaman named Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn)- destined to fall in love with Alice, and Charles D. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull)- a wealthy industrialist and war profiteer, who goes by the nickname Ritt. The final pair to come aboard are the token black character, George ‘Joe’ Spencer (Canada Lee)- a ship steward who is swimming with a British woman, Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), whose baby has died- even as she still clutches it. Joe is an early version of what has now become known as the ‘Mystical Negro.’ However, given most of the other noxious stereotypes Hollywood indulged in at the time, this stereotype is at least not that offensive. The final character to make it aboard is Willy (Walter Slezak), the Nazi sub commander, who is devious. He is a hulking man, with seemingly superhuman strength and wiles. We first see his huge hands clutching to the side of the boat. He feigns not speaking English, hides his compass from the others, as well as pilfering their water and food, and saving food pills for himself. The very fact that his character seems to be the strongest and smartest of the lifeboat refugees was a fact that caused government censors and critics around the country to criticize the film as not patriotic enough, resulting in a limited run for the film, after its January, 1944 opening, and a lesser box office gross than expected.
One of the biggest dissenters was the infamously stolid New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther, who wrote:
There remains the alarming implication, throughout all the action of this film, that the most efficient and resourceful man in this ‘Lifeboat’ is the Nazi, the man with ‘a plan.’ Nor is he an altogether repulsive or invidious type. As Walter Slezak plays him, he is tricky and sometimes brutal, yes, but he is practical, ingenious and basically courageous in his lonely resolve. Some of his careful deceptions would be regarded as smart and heroic if they came from an American in the same spot.
Obviously Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Steinbeck failed to grasp just what they had wrought. They certainly had no intention of elevating the ‘superman’ ideal- nor did the responsible studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. But we have a sneaking suspicion that the Nazis, with some cutting here and there, could turn ‘Lifeboat’ into a whiplash against the ‘decadent democracies.’ And it is questionable whether such a picture, with such a theme, is judicious at this time.
Of course, with a little editing, any film can be made to take a stance opposite the one it takes- be it politically, philosophically, or even humorously, so such a comment is worthless. Yet, the film has so many political points made in so many scenes- too many to go into in a single review, that such a comment is also a gross simplification. The fact is that Hitchcock was always far better and more subtle in his handling of onscreen politics than the topics of sex or deviant psychology, and this film is loaded with political complexity, often very subtly loaded. For example, Joe is, in many ways, a very stereotyped, subservient black of the era. But, in a sly dig at the irony of Americans fighting Nazi racism while maintaining their own, when the lifeboaters take a vote on whether or not to initially toss Willy back to the sea, they ask Joe for his vote, and he is shocked that they’d allow him to vote. He abstains, though, in a true reflection of the times. That critics like Crowther failed to see what is now blatant Allied propaganda is amazing. Yet, part of their failure may be due to Hitchcock’s wisdom in not making Willy totally evil. After all, he saves Gus’s leg before he murders him, and when a squall threatens to wreck the boat, it is Willy who cries out- for the first time in English, that the others are fools, thinking only of themselves, not the best interests of all in the boat. That the enemy states it so baldly was a gutsy move by the director, and that the very same credo, later, is used by Willy to justify killing Gus- thus showing that what works well in one circumstance does not in another, is a political complexity that few critics, in any age, can deal with.
However, this ‘microcosm effect’ on the script has always been a problem in fictive works- from Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author to the tv sitcom Gilligan’s Island (Connie and Alice making for a good Ginger and Maryann) to a more recent science fiction film like Cube. That’s because much of the ‘tension’ is forced, as are the inevitable love stories. As example, fellow traveler Kovac’s clashes with both the social climbing Connie (who is a fellow plebeian South Side Chicagoan) and the wealthy Ritt (Mr. Howell?) are a bit out of place, considering survival would be utmost in anyone’s mind. Then there is Joe’s being a reformed pickpocket, yet the only character with a wife and family waiting for him. The love stories are even more problematic, for when the film ends with an Allied ship bombing a German supply ship that is coming to rescue the lifeboaters, we see Connie revert back to her narcissistic self, even after she has done selfless things and evolved as a person. Her romance with Kovac will never last, and she will forget him once they get back to America. Even more pointless is the romance between Stanley and Alice. Yes, we get to see her confess an affair with a married British doctor, and we see some slight development in Stanley, but do they really have anything more in common than Connie and Kovac? We know so little about them that we cannot answer that, nor do we really care. That said, both romances have great moments. With Connie and Kovac it’s when she writes her initials in lipstick on his chest, where the tattooed initials of previous conquests reside. With Stanley and Alice it’s when he undoes the ribbon from her hair.
Then there is the critically misinterpreted sequence where, after Willy- who was a doctor before the war, amputates Gus’s leg, he is seen by Gus sneaking a drink of water, after he has commandeered the boat, as the others weakened and are lost without his nautical expertise. Willy has been directing them away from a westerly course to Bermuda and into German waters, when Gus delusionally speaks of his girlfriend Rosey, and Willy takes advantage of this to keep him quiet about the water. He then tricks Gus, pushes him overboard, and when the others wake, and learn what he’s done, they rush about him, beat him, and toss him overboard; all excepting the angelic Mystical Negro, Joe. The first to attack Willy is Alice, who earlier in the film said she did not understand why people wanted to kill other people.
Some critics have seen the killing of Willy as a murder, as bad as the murder of Gus Willy commits, to conserve the resources of the boat for those who can still be of use to him. Yet, clearly, the killing of Willy is not murder, but the execution of a murderer by a society that will not tolerate murder. That such a manifest difference is glossed over shows how poorly politics can influence criticism. It also shows that Hitchcock’s propagandistic efforts yielded mixed results in his audience. At its worst, at the film’s end, when after the German ship is torpedoed, a second Nazi sailor crawls aboard. He is younger than Willy, but carries a gun. He is disarmed, then asks if the lifeboaters will kill him? This gives Hitchcock his film’s ending, as the characters mull over what can be done with people like that, and Connie gets the last word, as the film ends before their rescue, just as it started after their ship’s sinking.
Yet, despite such huge negatives, the fact is that, put into life threatening situations, the way all the characters- be they stereotypes or not, act and react, is a hundred percent believable- with the possible exception of the pre-PC PC depiction of Joe. And the acting is superb, from the simply perfect Bankhead- who, of course, gets off the best lines in the film, like, ‘Dying together’s even more personal than living together,’ and ‘Darling, some of my best friends are women’- a sly nod to Bankhead’s lesbianism, to Hodiak’s rough hewn Kovac (why he never became a big male star is a total mystery), to Cronyn and Hull, and especially Slezak as Willy, who oozes evil that is both stereotypical of Nazi portrayals, yet very realistic, as an individual, such as when he yawns at the pain that the mother with the dead baby is going through. He has much in common with other Hitchcock killers- such as the thrill killers in Rope, or Bruno Anthony in Strangers On A Train. He is vain, self-confident, and underestimates his foes, which is his undoing. Yet, he is probably the most likable of those sorts of characters that Hitchcock created.
Of course, Hitchcock’s truest greatness was in the technical side of film, and Lifeboat is a tour de force, even if its rear screen projections seem a bit dated. Perhaps the only flaw with the film is in several scenes where obvious models are use for larger ships, as water does not scale. There is very little music in the film- only at the start and end of the film, and in some tunes Joe- of course being musically inclined, plays on his recorder.
Yet, this may be the best directed of all Hitchcock films- at least technically, for given the limited cast and background scenery, he does a remarkable job of positioning people, such as when the baby of the English mother- who later suicides, is given an ocean burial, and the characters start quoting from the Twenty-Third Psalm. They misquote, and in steps Joe, for his lone soliloquy, in close up profile, with the others framed about the edge of the boat. It is both a classical composition, yet startling for its placement in the film at that time, a precursor to the self-conscious posing so effectively done in Ingmar Bergman films of the 1960s. This is one of the few films where Hitchcock’s famed and overused habit of storyboarding- a technique many great directors repudiate, actually works, for it helps with shot placement and maintaining a lack of visual repetition. There are other classical tripodal compositions of the characters, and great usage of light and dark, as well as camera angles that arrest for their unconventionality, compared to other Hollywood films of the day- such as a shot of the bare outstretched hands of the mother who has lost her child, as well as their conventionality- just look at the scene where Connie advises Alice on her love life, as she is laying down in the boat, with her hair finally undone, and not tied upwards. Bankhead is bathed in a soft glow that is in the classic goddess making shot book of Hollywood directors. Yet, its placement in this film is utterly jarring, for it is an idealization of a woman at her least idealizable moment. Then there is the relentless use of close ups, which is justified by the setting, yet jars a viewer- especially six decades ago, who is used to a variety of long, medium-long, medium, medium-close, and close up shots in a film.
The DVD transfer of the film is so-so, with some clear speckling, and its 1.33:1 aspect ratio seems to not be correct, as parts of the top and bottom of the film are cut off, especially in the credit sequence. The extras lack a theatrical trailer, but have a stills gallery, a twenty minute making of featurette, and an audio commentary by a film professor named Drew Casper. It’s not a good one, as it has large gaps of silence, and Casper never pays attention to what is onscreen, merely reading from pre-scripted notes, and bubbling enthusiastically about the film, with no real coherence to what is actually going on at the time. He makes a few good points, such as Willy’s singing a German lullaby as he is taking the lifeboaters to be picked up by a German ship, and how the plane crash ending of Hitchcock’s earlier Foreign Correspondent helped him formulate this film, but too often he just rambles on, or makes silly comments about how Willy is murdered, when clearly he is executed; and that’s not mere semantics.
For Hitchcock fans, wondering how the director snuck in his cameo, it’s when Gus is reading a newspaper, and we see an ad for a diet pill- Reduco, which features before and after pictures of Hitchcock. That same gag was reused in Rope. If Lifeboat is not a great film, it’s damned close, and given all the technical and script problems it had to overcome, that’s a hell of an achievement, for, unlike many Hitchcock films, this one can be seen over and again and force deeper conversation each time, because it is not dependent upon a simple-minded twist ending. Thus, despite all its failings, Lifeboat is a true work of art, something its heroine has also been called. Viva recapitulation!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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