Saturday, November 30, 2013

Lifeboat (1944)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                              Writers: Jo Swerling & John Steinbeck
Film Score: Hugo Friedhofer                           Cinematography: Glen MacWilliams
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Henry Hull and Walter Slezak

Alfred Hitchcock seemed to enjoy the kind of filmmaking challenges that would have driven a lot of other directors crazy. Single takes of ten minutes each in Rope, one-room mysteries like Dial M for Murder or Rear Window, and one of the smallest film sets of all time in Lifeboat. This is a fascinating film, a wartime propaganda drama that doubles as a morality play. After an Allied ship has been sunk while crossing the Atlantic, with the German U-Boat sunk as well, a single lifeboat begins gathering up all of the surviving passengers. Tallulah Bankhead is wonderful as the unconventional career woman, in this case a world-renowned reporter, who is aboard the boat with her luggage, furs, typewriter and camera, one of her few film roles after performing primarily on the stage for most of her career.

The first person she hauls out of the water is engine-room sailor John Hodiak. He was a tremendous acting talent whose career was cut short by his unexpected death in 1955 at the age of 41. Next aboard is the venerable Hume Cronyn in one of his earliest roles. The rest of the survivors include the great British actor Henry Hull, Americans Mary Anderson as a nurse and William Bendix as a sailor, the British Heather Angel, and African American Canada Lee in a stereotypical servant role. What really changes the dynamic onboard the lifeboat, however, is when they pull a German sailor out of the water. Hodiak is all for tossing the guy overboard and dancing a jig while he drowns. Cooler heads prevail, however, mainly Hull, who seems to be the appeaser aboard. But things unravel fast when Angel’s baby dies and she follows him into the water in the middle of the night, and when Bendix’s wounded leg can only be fixed by the German amputating it.

Hitchcock was the master of suspense, but there’s not very much of that here. It’s a fascinating character study of all aboard, especially when it becomes clear that Walter Slezak as the German is not exactly who they think he is, and there are moral issues aplenty when they try to figure out exactly what to do with him. Hodiak says that since they’re at war, he is an enemy combatant and may be killed. Cronyn, however, says that he falls into the category of prisoner of war and they should treat him accordingly. The ending would have been a fascinating ethical dilemma all on it’s own, and I would like to believe that without the war Hitchcock would have left it morally ambiguous. But it becomes a blatant propaganda film in the last few minutes when they pull yet another German out of the water. Still, there’s little to quibble with. The story, by John Steinbeck, is a solid one and the Hitchcock touch makes it transcend genre distinctions.

Because of the unique nature of the set, Hitchcock had to make his cameo appearance in an equally unique way. He does it by appearing in a weight-loss advertisement in the newspaper that Bendix is reading. As was Hitchcock’s preference, the film was shot entirely on the studio with rear-screen projection of the water behind the actors and stagehands tossing real water into the boat. And while Hugo Friedhofer wrote the dramatic opening title sequence, in key with the continuous whistle of the sinking ship, that was the only music used in the film. There was no score used in order to replicate the dramatic effect of being lost at sea. Lifeboat remains a very successful propaganda film from World War Two, as well as being yet another of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces.

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