Week 29: ‘Lifeboat’ – 1944

This is a wonderful film – a high concept drama taking place entirely in a lifeboat and it succeeds on many levels. Within the lifeboat we experience intrigue, suicide, racism, scheming, insanity, deception and murder – and a clever Hitchcock personal appearance to boot. You don’t get the drama of a baby being born, but there is an already dead baby thrown in (to the water) for good measure.

The director holds his nerve from the start and resists showing the ‘ship going down’ scene – instead an ever growing close-up of the ship’s funnel sinks slowly, the camera moving across the wreakage and debris left from the vessel and establishing a U Boat sailor floating dead in the water.

We first see Constance ‘Connie’ Porter (the great Tallulah Bankhead) floating nonchalantly in the lifeboat, ciggie in hand, a bored expression of resignation on her face. At this stage she’s alone, but not for long. A sailor (Kovak, played by John Hodiak) swims towards her and she immediately picks up her film camera (looks like a 16mm) and we see the camera’s p.o.v. – an interesting technique and unusual, but the kind of thing the director throws in all over the place throughout the film to lift it out of what could be a restricted set.

Kovak pretty instantly manages to knock the camera into the ocean, much to Connie’s extreme consternation, given the amount of great footage she says she has captured.

As more and more survivors climb on the lifeboat relationships are established fast and characters introduced – the sailors, the passengers…and finally the enemy. ‘Hey look – another customer’ as Willie the German (Walter Slezak) clambers aboard., his ‘danker shern’ preceding a fade to black to emphasise the significance of this ‘rattlesnake’ (their words) coming aboard. I don’t quite buy that the whole lot of them wouldn’t search the German from the outset – especially once they realise he is the skipper of the U-Boat.

The film throws up a load of social and class and race issues – it feels at times like Sidney Lumet’s ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (1957), different arguments coming at you from each of them, starting with the conjecture about bunging the jerry overboard*. The black guy, Joe (Canada Lee), is surprised when he gets a vote in the matter, the others expressing surprise that he thinks he would not. It’s all wonderful, provocative stuff partly courtesy of the mighty John Steinbeck, who co-wrote the picture with Jo Swerling (and an uncredited Ben Hecht).

The at-sea burial of the baby is very moving, Joe reciting the full Bible quote of ‘yea though I walk through the valley of death’, the photography adding to the drama as he comes into frame with strong dramatic lighting.

The deranged, spaced-out berieved mother Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) is clearly not long for this small world either, accusing Willie of killing her baby before being actually tied down to protect herself. To add insult to death, the German callously yawns before lying down for a kip. She won’t last the night and slips overboard, leaving only an empty chair as evidence.

The film is photographed beautifully by Glen MacWilliams (and the uncredited Arthur C. Miller), the rear projection some of the finest in Hitchcock to date – a gentle breeze blowing for added effectiveness, buckets of water tossed in when it all kicks off. It’s very convincing and believable and has wonderful looking black and whiteness.

Alice MacKenzie (played by Mary Anderson) is in charge of the sick bay on board. She has to face up to an at sea leg amputation as the battle-wounded Gus (William Bendix, who’s great in the picture) faces creeping gangrene. Gus is a marathon dancer and knows those days are over. It’s a great scene, a real human drama as they all gang together for the inevitable. Gus does seem to get hammered very fast, as he chugs down the brandy as a makeshift anaesthetic. He’s literally slurring and defocused and flirty and singing within a couple of minutes (he’d be cheap on a night out). He asks Connie for a kiss and she moves in on him without hesitation, the tough world-wise dame that she is. They all help with the heating of the fateful knife as Gus readies himself by punching Kovak in the chops, as you do. The poignant shot of Gus’s spare empty boot on the deck is all that is needed to summarise the trauma he has undergone.

Romance starts to bloom between Alice and Sparks (the great Hume Cronyn, so different here from the nerdy Herbie in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’), he a caring shoulder to cry to about her unrequited love for a married doctor. Sparks is visibly pained as she relates her story of love-woe and there’s a couple of great profile shots here as they talk and look past each other towards the endless ocean.

It slowly dawns on Sparks that Willie has been fibbing in regards to their direction, and as the picture dissolves to later that night, he subtly pushes the tiller to redirect them to Bermuda.

The lifeboaters also realise that Willie may have a compass and they enlist Joe to pickpocket him, the latter saying he made a solemn vow that all that was behind him – until they practically order him to do so. Joe is slick and falls on the half asleep German, pocketing his compass as he does so.

It’s all really good, and well acted – and gives a very real sense that this is how these people would behave, operating under the dwindling restraints of civilisation and trying to be fair whilst growing steadily more desperate. The lifeboat becomes a microcosm of society with all the normal desires and wants and emotions and temptations. As the rising squall reaches a climax, Gus falls overboard and the German grasps control of the tiller – effectively saving him! The water crashes in and there’s NO MUSIC, a bold move on Hitchcock’s part which serves to ground the film even more in reality. It’s very convincing, again, that they are at sea and potentially could at any moment drown or die in some heat stroke lack of water related way. Wonderful stuff.  The only respite to the no music rule (apart from the opening and closing of the picture) is Willie’s singing to the millionaire industrialist Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) on the penny whistle.

Willie takes control as the storm really kicks off and pretty much all their possessions get swept away – a brief shot of Connie despondently looking at her comb and lipstick as everything else has been stripped away from her (save her bracelet which will come to the fore in a later scene). In the height of the storm, Connie and Kovac launch on each other in abandonment and later, as the sun shines, they lie together like a post coital couple, and shortly after they’re playing a gentle game of footsie with each other.

Willie has taken control and rows like a Viking as the others loll around knackered, he beaming with pride at being a member of the ‘master race’.

When Kovac reads the paper, Connie playfully pushes her finger through it and there is a brief but effective shot as she passes through the frame left to right before quizzing him on his tattoos – adding her own initials onto his swarthy chest. It’s interesting to note that Kovac is the only topless male on board in the film – set up as a 1940’s paradigm of the masculine torso – nowadays you’d have the buffed and 6 packed warrior look of ‘300’ to contend with. Kovac shuns Connie and wards her off ‘slumming’ it with him – she riles and stares at him in barely suppressed fury.

I love the way it all boils down to water, evoking Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:

‘Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink’.

An incendiary fight between Kovak and Rittenhouse is averted when they realize it is raining, but the downpour is all too brief. Poor amputee Gus’s lot gets worse when he starts glugging down the seawater and begins to descend into mania. The whole thing feels like all of ‘society’ is just a couple of day’s starvation and thirst away from turning into animals, the impassive ever rowing Willie holding it together. Hitchcock’s compositions on Willie err on the side of balanced – he, centre frame, coolly just keeping going and awaiting whatever chance he may get to take ultimate control and steer them towards his own safe haven. As he sings with great vim and vigour, his huge hands move to close up right in our faces.

Willie is a great character – he’s got all he needs (water, food tablets, the compass) and sees them as weak (all right, he’s a rather clichéd German villain type, but this was 1944). He has a gleam in his eye as the camera shoots him closeup, visible sweat on his forehead as they notice and realize that to sweat he must have water.

They turn on him and attack him as he talks to them like they’re kids, and you can’t blame them but simultaneously you have to admire him for his reserves and preparedness. Eventually they pitch him overboard and he’s finished off by savage blows from Rittenhouse. They have been brought as low as they can go – it’s murder on this ocean.

‘To my dying day, I’ll never understand Willie and what he did’ so says millionaire Rittenhouse, amazingly, straight after pummeling the enemy to death. He slowly realizes that, even with all his wealth, ultimately he has joined ‘the mob’.

Talllulah Bankhead (for all the titillating stories of her on set underwear-free shenanigans) is very good and strong, if a little sub-Marlene Dietrich. She has a great gutteral voice – right up there with Dietrich and Joan Greenwood, the husky voiced British character actress. Connie has a great balance of determination, cynicism with hooded eyes and a steely reporter’s determination. In fact, the whole cast shine through what was apparently a tough shoot of bobbing around in water tanks for months on end. Connie’s manic laugh as her final possession, the Cartier bracelet, is washed away after on the verge of a fish-baiting triumph, is great as they all ditch any such survivalist thoughts in favour of the eventually approaching supply ship. There’s a great track/dolly to Joe as he spots the supply ship, no mean feat through the group of people the camera has to pass through (probably executed with the camera on a dolly from above to avoid any contact with the wavey ground).

The climactic battle with the German supply ship attacked by the Allies vessel is gripping, cross cutting between them desperately rowing to get out of the way and the oncoming hull of destruction. Their eventual salvation seems well earned, murderers in a time of war that they are. The final debate on the fate of a young German seaman who has come aboard keeps going past the end of the picture, a really nice way of leaving the ending open and the audience to consider what they would do at such a time.

‘Lifeboat’ gives you an in depth study of the drama that plays out between all different sections of society – suddenly all in the same boat and facing an uncertain life or death. It is exciting and taut and slow moving at times – yes – but for the same reason as James Stewart tailing Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’ – to put the audience through the same feelings of boredom that the protagonists are experiencing. It’s top notch stuff and one of the most successful experimental movies Hitchcock made (I prefer it, I have to say, to 1948’s ‘Rope’, but more on that in August). The photography is great and, even given the one set bound feel of the whole thing, never feels hampered or constrained. It’s really well acted and thought out and all in all a fantastically exciting, endlessly inventive and thought-provoking entertainment.

Miscellaneous notes

*in the Lumet film, to increase tension, the director made the jury room smaller as the film progressed. I don’t think Hitchcock does the same here, but it may have been an interesting notion.

@ 24’00 Hitchcock works in his personal appearance skillfully as the ‘before’ picture in a newspaper weight-loss advertisement.

I watched this on the 20th Century Fox ‘Cinema Reserve’ label – a very stylish edition in a metal case with two discs – including a 20 minute ‘making of’ documentary and various other special features. Well worth checking out.

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