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Lifeboat (1944)

by on 2010/11/11

In what was to be one of my last viewings of TV Ontario’s Saturday Night at the Movies, I saw an archival interview conducted by host Elwy Yost and an actor whose identity now escapes me.  If pressed, I’d guess it was John Forsythe (The Trouble With Harry, Topaz, Charlie’s Angels), though I know I remember the tale he told…

During the production of Lifeboat, one of crew approached director Alfred Hitchcock and frantically reported they were setting up the next shot but their star, Tallulah Bankhead, was positioned such that they could see up her dress, and she wasn’t wearing underwear!  Hitch went quiet for a bit.  Impatiently his visitor demanded, “Well?  What do we do?”  To which Hitchcock cooly replied, “I’m thinking.  You see, I don’t know if it’s a matter for makeup, wardrobe, or hairdressing.”

Like the legends of Bankhead herself, her character Connie Porter is independent, aloof, and only marginally inconvenienced by disaster.  When her trans-Atlantic passager is sunk by a U-boat, she is helped into a craft of her own, along with a camera, typewriter, and the cases containing her cosmetics, jewelry, and mink coat.  (Makeup, wardrobe, and hairdressing indeed.)  John Kovac (John Hodiak), a ship’s engineer, climbs aboard and spends the rest of the running time as disgusted as he is aroused by her.

Gradually these two are joined by the remaining players, a variety of English and American characters, and one U-boat survivor.  Kovac immediately decides the German should be thrown back to the sea, an early example of the many exchanges to come, in which the varied characters argue opposing views.  Lifeboat is less a locked room murder mystery (as you might expect from Hitchcock) than an excuse to debate matters of social and political import.  In a sense, they have brought the wider war into a new theatre.

The ironic inability for the Allies to ally themselves is a strong theme at the core of this story.  Whether lines are drawn between classes, races, genders, beliefs, or nationalities matters less than the lines being drawn at all.  There are other themes at play here — delusion, denial, deception, and others — but they all serve the higher fractiousness.

(Spoiler begins.  Highlight to read.)

At the risk of significant spoilers, I’d like to comment on the character of Willi (Walter Slezak).  I was surprised to learn of the backlash his character evinced against Hitchcock and the film’s writer, John Steinbeck.  Apparently the film’s audiences disliked a German being portrayed in any sympathetic light.  Frankly I’m taken aback by this reaction.  I thought he was demonized to the extent that the entire piece risked descending into sheer propaganda.  Every prejudice demonstrated by others, no matter how ignorant or idiotic, is eventually validated by their resident Nazi Iago.  Perhaps I’ve been too softened by songs like Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”, John Lennon’s “Imagine”, or Sting’s “Russians”, but I found the xenophobia to be a challenge in enjoying myself.

(Spoiler ends.)

The movie is not without fault, but we may choose to forgive its cantankerous antiquity.  Other flaws are also softened by virtue of age.  The artifice of the practical set, the projection/compositing, and makeup all benefit from the era’s grainy stock and lack of colour.  Still, like his “single unbroken shot” in Rope, some may find the effort restrictive.  Whether or not Lifeboat was an experimental exercise, given the claustrophobic subject, I don’t find the single set a gimmick.  My only regret is that the idea of a rowboat, while logistically effective in forcing a disparate group together, doesn’t innately reflect the theme of discord.  (Perhaps if it were slowly disintegrating?)

None of these concerns detract much from the film, however.  Hitchcock is a master of craft.  Some of his tools are common enough — a preoccupation with games, the symbolism of footwear, the weather’s pathetic fallacy — but others are more distinctive.  Pacing slows to a crawl when Gus (William Bendix) anticipates his surgery.  Discomfort is slowly layered in the suspense of real-time drunkenness, the gathering of makeshift tools, and the desperate dread of a maudlin song.

At one point Kovac goes shirtless, revealing a torso covered with tattoos to commemorate past lovers.  Connie disapproves, but his quip, “Remind me to show you the rest of them some time”, is met with an odd, enigmatic look.  It could have been revulsion but just as likely interest, which says as much about my response to Lifeboat as Bankhead herself.

* * * *

Not rated, but contains disturbing scenes

96 minutes

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