Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Tallulah Bankhead In 'Lifeboat'

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a ship is torpedoed by a U-boat, a group of survivors find shelter in a lifeboat – but they also take aboard a German…

Soon after its launch in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat began to sink. Influential film critics objected to the even-handed depiction of a German character – a U-boat caption no less – and Twentieth Century Fox responded by limiting the number of prints in circulation and soft-pedalling the advertising. The movie actually ended up losing money at the box office.

It was released before the Normandy landings, so perhaps this reaction is understandable in the heightened context of the Second World War (even if, at the time, star Tallulah Bankhead called the critics moronic). But today it’s an unfair critique of a mostly excellent film. The first of Hitch’s single-location experiments (cf Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window), Lifeboat presents an intriguing situation then populates it with memorable characters, plenty of drama and reversals of fortune. It’s a buoyant film, with themes that bubble to the surface. But there are also choppy waters along the way, as well as some dangerous undercurrents…

After an attack by a German U-boat, a passenger ship goes down in the Atlantic Ocean. A small group of survivors – a famous journalist, a couple of seaman, a nurse, a wealthy industrialist, a mother with her baby, a British radioman and a ship steward – find refuge in a lifeboat. They’re adrift, isolated and helpless. Their supplies are low and they have no means of contacting anyone.

The overall tone of the film is gallows humour mixed with a Blitz spirit. Despite the subtext of fear, there’s a real can-do attitude amongst this group. Whether it’s proactively fixing the boat’s damage or cataloguing supplies or playing cards – or working as a team to amputate a gangrenous leg! – these characters come together despite their differences. Every person in the story makes a contribution, even the character with the shortest screentime (Heather Angel’s Mrs Higley, whose baby dies but she’s too catatonic with shock to notice).

The nominal lead is journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), who appears at first to be a thoroughly awful woman, one so selfish that she boasts of the photographs she’s taken of the disaster rather than helping the victims. She starts off as an immaculately turned-out lady of society, but as she sheds clothes and accessories due to the heat and dehydration we get to know more and like her more. She even develops a cross-class flirtation with the rugged John Kovac (John Hodiak), a man who takes his shirt off at the earliest opportunity and flaunts his tattoos.

Elsewhere, there’s the affable but badly injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), the sweet and stoic Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), eccentric, cigar-chewing millionaire Charles J Rittenhouse Jr (Henry Hull), the friendly and resourceful Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett (Hume Cronyn, sadly putting on a pretty dire English accent) and the calming presence of ship steward Joe (Canada Lee). But thrown into this mix is an additional survivor, one who threatens to scuttle the sprightly group.

Floating through the wreckage of the passenger ship, they pull a stranger aboard. ‘Danke schoen,’ he says as he regains his breath, and the implication is immediately obvious. He’s from the U-boat, which itself has now sunk. But should our characters help stricken Willi (Walter Slezak)? Or should they just throw him overboard? He’s not an outwardly evil man, even offering help with poor Gus’s busted leg and suggesting the correct way to Bermuda. But he’s still the enemy. The dilemma of what to do with him drives much of the story, creates divisions within the lifeboat survivors, and has a shocking climax…

Based on an original idea by Hitchcock, the script was initially written by playwright John Steinbeck. (Ernest Hemingway had also been sounded out.) However, it was later tinkered with by a number of hands and Steinbeck disowned the project. In many ways, it’s a marvel. The dialogue is punchy yet meaningful and has a pleasing rhythm. The story never flags, despite the single setting. And you always want to know what’s going to happen next. But there is a problem. It’s one of the reasons Steinbeck turned his back on the movie. Lifeboat, regrettably, is lazily racist in its depiction of the story’s only black character.

Given the eras in which he produced movies it’s not surprising that Hitchcock’s diversity record is, by today’s standards, rather appalling. Other than Lifeboat’s Joe, his only other significant non-white character is charismatic spy Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) in Topaz. When black men (never women) are otherwise spotted in Hitchcock movies, they tend to be servile or docile. The plot resolution of Young and Innocent, meanwhile, has a white character hiding under blackface.

At least Joe is played by a conscientious actor who tweaked his dialogue to remove the worst of the clichés he’d been given to say (the yessirs and all the rest). But, sadly, the character still comes across like a second-class citizen who’s there to entertain the others with his flute and sort out their food supplies. He rarely has a voice of his own, he has to ask not to be called by the generic black servant name of Charlie, and other characters initially use the nickname Charcoal.

But if this blemish needs us to turn a blind eye, in its physical staging Lifeboat *excels*. The studio recreation of the rough desolation of the mid Atlantic Ocean is a wonder of filmmaking and gives the story so much texture. It was achieved via a number of methods. Four different boats were built for the production; two were complete, while two were cut in half so the camera could get closer to the actors. A water tank was used for certain shots where a boat could be held in place by wires; another vessel was on rollers to better control its pitch and yaw. Dump tanks and chutes allowed thousands of gallons of water to be sloshed around. Dry ice created hazes of ocean mist and fog. Footage of endless, barren seas off California and Florida was played behind the actors on enormous rear-projection screens. In the final cut, everything is then accompanied by smartly chosen and edited sound effects. It all creates a tremendous sense of place.

Filming might have come at a price. The cast were repeatedly soaked with water and had to contend with motion sickness; Tallulah Bankhead caught pneumonia twice; Mary Anderson fell ill; Hume Cronyn suffered broken ribs and nearly drowned. But their sacrifices were worth it. Lifeboat is worth clinging to.

Nine before and after pictures in a newspaper ad for Reduco weight-loss drug out of 10

NOTE: I cut the following paragraph from the above review because it didn’t really fit into the flow, but the gags are so good I thought I’d add it here as a kind of ‘deleted scene’ extra:

There were moments of levity along the way too. When actress Mary Anderson asked Hitchcock what he thought was her ‘best side’, he said, ‘You’re sitting on it, my dear.’ After being told that Tallulah Bankhead had a habit of not wearing underwear, and this may cause an issue if caught on camera, Hitch is said to have joked, ‘I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up or hairdressing.’ And when the director argued that he didn’t want the film to have a score because the audience would be asking where the music is coming from, a caustic composer commented, ‘Ask Mr Hitchcock to explain where the camera came from and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.’

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