Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)


One of the least dated and most challenging propaganda films Hollywood made during World War II, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (based vaguely on a prose treatment by John Steinbeck) gets a lot of strength from its experimental quality as the first of the director’s several “single set” films, a study in confinement that manages to remain visually interesting and exciting despite never leaving the titular vessel; it gets more yet from its concentration almost exclusively on civilians, escaping from a passenger ship sunken by the Germans, rather than military personnel. Hitchcock made it while still under contract with David O. Selznick, for 20th Century Fox — who ended up growing frustrated with the surprisingly extravagant budget and bloated schedule (beset by various illnesses, camera problems, injuries and Tallulah Bankhead) and cancelling plans to make a second film with him; they also weren’t rewarded particularly handsomely for their efforts, with the film failing to make back its money and causing controversy with its multifaceted portrayal of a German officer. Perhaps that’s why, seen today, it seems more strikingly human and relevant than the great majority of American war films of its vintage, even those made by Hitchcock himself (Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur).

Like most narrative films operating with a specific political purpose — in this case the encouragement of the Allies to remain united against a common enemy rather than fostering division among themselves, a depressing topic in left-wing circles even now — Lifeboat struggles a bit with the way that its obligations as a deliverer of its message have to disrupt its more timeless elements of poetic metaphor: the idea of (initially) nine disparate people from various backgrounds trapped together under extremely stressful, harrowing circumstances would be potentially intriguing in any time or historical context, and Hitchcock and his many assisting screenwriters (only Jo Swerling is credited but at least six people worked on the script) do well to place the War itself as simply another obstacle in these characters’ mutual empathy and understanding. Seen today, it’s a movie that works impressively as a period drama that could have come into being now, rather than just as a window into outdated attitudes; it’s beholden enough to common humanity, and is reticent enough about pulling punches, that its drama still feels modern.

Steinbeck’s credit is harnessed for prestige but he had little to do with the film and complained, tiresomely as ever, that it demonstrated that Hitchcock hated “working people” and that the director had sullied his attempt to craft a black character with “dignity” instead of as a comic token character, but seeing the film it’s difficult to understand how it fosters either of these conclusions; in fact, while the black actor Canada Lee’s Joe (in a strong, compassionate performance) is arguably given less to do than the other characters aboard the lifeboat, he was permitted by Hitchcock, like Patricia Collinge in Shadow of a Doubt, to rewrite his own dialogue and make changes to his character. Possibly as a result, he never feels like a stereotype and is given as much of a “back-story” as anyone in the ensemble (he is the only lifeboat passenger whose family we see, in a photograph). Steinbeck’s complaints as well as those of the film’s initial critics, who hated the even-handed treatment of the Nazi played by Walter Slezak, just serve to hold up the very black and white view of the world that the film, in all its ambiguity and moral righteousness, actively discourages.

Despite the star billing afforded Tallulah Bankhead — this was her first film in twelve years, and today it is by orders of magnitude her best known performance in the medium — the characters in Lifeboat are mostly given equal stage time, and all are about equally well-defined; we don’t identify with any of them as intensely as we typically do the protagonists in a Hitchcock picture, but the short bites of truth and personality we get are in line with his later methods for developing unique characters quickly in his half-hour television dramas. Bankhead is a well-known photojournalist named Connie Porter — shades of Jimmy Stewart in another confined-location Hitchcock film — who manages to board the lifeboat before anyone else, looking distinctly un-frazzled and equipped with an amusing number of worldly possessions: camera, typewriter, mink coat, suitcase full of brandy, all to be systematically ripped from her grasp over the course of the film. Bankhead is given most of the best, hardest-boiled dialogue and her coolheadedness in a crisis scenario is engaging, taunting the story along even when things are dire. (“What now, little men?” she asks after another setback.) Because she speaks German, she’s also the sole conduit the survivors have with the enterprising German who comes aboard, Willi.

The enigmatic Willi, a surgeon in civilian life, struggles onto the ship after it’s already well populated and quickly finds ways to assert control, to make the others owe and trust him, while denying that he served as the attacking u-boat’s captain (a lie Connie cleverly exposes). Typically stuck playing stereotypical heavies, Walter Slezak is terrific in the role — his eyes incredibly expressive, traversing so well between gregarious warmth and smug menace — and believable enough that it seems as if audiences and critics held his actions against him as though Willi were a real person, so scandalized were they that the role was written as a human being. Today, the film plays as unmitigated in its anti-Nazi sentiment; one wonders what those were incensed really wanted, unless it was just that they should take the advice of hotheaded engine room crew member John Hodiak and throw the German overboard immediately. Then as now, the film is wise to take a humane approach while still regarding the fascist officer with proper skepticism, and we’re shown the potential consequences of accommodating him when he leads them off-course, even though without him at least one of the Americans, the gangrenous Gus (William Bendix) whose leg he amputates, would be killed.

Gus is the most sensitive and affable of the passengers, an all-American who loves to dance with his girl back home and is therefore despondent at the thought of losing his leg. John is simultaneously the most egotistical and overemotional (taking command when he has no idea how to navigate the boat) and the most hardened realist, in the sense that he sees through Willi’s charade before anyone else. Mary Anderson’s weary nurse Alice MacKenzie, the lifeboat’s only American military officer, feels most like an audience vessel — horrified, doing what she can, unsure of how to make herself most helpful. Canada Lee’s Joe, the former pickpocket, is an interesting portrait of the stymied African-American of those days, keeping himself separate for most of the early scenes without being asked to, expressing surprise at the fact that he gets “a vote” in what happens (a welcome injection of cynicism), and shying away from exploring what we eventually know to be a complex inner life he’s reluctant to place in the open among a group of people whose lives are so alien in their separation from him, yet his own decisive movements drive the story forward at several crucial points. The privileged, witty pragmatist-capitalist “Ritt” (Henry Hull) is a sort of Algonquin Round Table figure who serves as both a previous party mate of Connie’s and as the film’s voice of enlightened, equimonious liberalism, to a fault. Lastly, Hume Cronyn appears as a radio operator and, per usual for his acting roles, a master of peculiar understatement; describing a previous incident in which we was stuck on a similar-sized but better equipped lifeboat for nearly fifty days, he sheepishly declares “we got a bit sunburnt.”

It’s impossible to fully explore or get a handle on any of these people in 96 minutes, but the film’s purpose is for them to be a jury-like cross section of humanity, thus the real story is in how they interact, communicate and eventually work as a collective (the strongest evidence of Steinbeck’s influence over the plot). Hitchcock expresses this more cogently in the camera than the script does, solid as it is, with a haunting shot of the balance of the hapless passengers taking a matter into their hands for another’s benefit: gathering around a flame and a knife in preparation for Gus’ improvised operation. This is later mirrored by a collective killing — revenge, but also self-preservation — in which they participate: a powerful, cathartic moment, even if one character is somewhat correct to describe it as “a mob.” It’s this refusal for easy answers — even as the film clearly casts the Nazi presence as a disease that must be eradicated — that rubbed so many the wrong way about Lifeboat, and now allows it to feel as much like story as polemic.

The sole passenger unmentioned so far is the most heartbreaking. A Scottish woman named Mrs. Higley is among the first to climb aboard, and tragedy is already written on her before it plays out; she is clutching a baby the others quickly determine to have already died in the blast and subsequent sinking, and they try to attend to her in the harrowing hours that follow, but she is unable to cope with the shock and ultimately commits suicide. The raw scenes in which she realizes what has happened and acts out aggressively are among the most unfiltered and emotional in Hitchcock’s canon, indeed in classic Hollywood; they’re genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and have a haunting air of realism about them that speaks volumes to how carefully Hitchcock and his cinematographers (Arthur Miller was unable to take the swaying of the simulated ocean and was replaced by Glen MacWilliams, who managed to get an Oscar nomination along with Hitchcock and Steinbeck, but presumably the uncredited Miller played a larger role in pre-production), not to mention editor Dorothy Spencer, prepared the film’s visuals for maximum impact, despite the extreme limitation they imposed on themselves.

Hitchcock used miniatures to explore the possibilities of blocking and camera placement within such a severely confined setting, but never copped to the temptation to simply find audacious angles or movements; in fact, the most remarkable achievement of Lifeboat is that the viewer is sufficiently caught up in the interpersonal drama that the single setting is never a hindrance, while also never out of sight or mind. That’s not to say there aren’t a few bravura moments, like the stunningly beautiful funeral scene wherein the remaining castaways lay the infant to rest, their eyes only faintly visible in the dark; or the brilliantly menacing head-on view on Slezak rowing the boat, his hands incongruously strong, his face cheerful, his command and confidence impenetrable. (Did George Stevens remember this moment and pointedly reverse it with Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun? Probably not but it’s fun to think about.) Equally striking is the climactic moment when Connie and the others are preoccupied with an attempt to bait fish, when Joe notices a ship in the distance, and the camera notices him at the same instant we do, a beautifully controlled composition that feels not the least bit contrived or stilted. And as for Spencer’s contribution, it’s hard to know whether she or Hitchcock had the absurd stroke of genius to match fade-outs with moments of ominous crisis, to the point that fades themselves become a symptom of dramatic irony, but it works almost sickeningly well: watch the blackness after Gus takes a gulp of salt water, or after Willi’s first utterance of “danke schoen.”

For many viewers, World War II itself is a point of continued fascination, and understandably so; to them a film like Lifeboat is a treat because it directly confronts the matter of civilian life directly affected by the war. For others, however, the film is potentially just as engrossing and poignant. The coupling-off of four characters is unnecessary and inert, though it’s hard to know how improbable it really is in such a touch-and-go survival scenario; and despite the appearance of strong female characters and a person of color in a mostly non-stereotypical (if excessively deferential, though that could easily be the way the scenario would have had to play out in real life in 1944) role, there’s no question the film is a product of its time… but unlike Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent, it has something surprisingly direct to tell us about our current environment.

Accused of denigrating allies by allowing a Nazi to perform heroic acts even if ultimately condemning him as a hostile intruder, Lifeboat seems now to be chiding us directly for confronting the outright murderous hatred of actual neo-Nazis and white supremacists with polite dialogue and discourse, as though hugging it out or wishing it away is the correct response to fascism, the very thing that normalizes it enough to get one of its racist practitioners elected as President of the United States. The characters are not wrong to extend to an enemy the chance to survive; indeed, it’s their moral duty. But there is also the matter of the moral duty that comes from being right, from being opposed to every last thing that the Nazis and their descendants stand for, and disallowing the Willis of the world from having an opportunity to steer us in whatever direction they wish. In other words, as Josh Marshall wrote in 2016: “On a basic philosophical level, embracing violence to combat political and moral evils like racism and fascism is simply not equivalent to embracing violence to advance these evils. Any liberalism or constitutionalism that is so bloodless that it can’t make these distinctions is too ornate and theoretical to exist in the wild.” Now as often as in 1944, there are times when the only correct and valid response to a Nazi spewing rhetoric or sewing the seeds of hatred — the only one that he is likely to comprehend — is to punch him, hurt him, throw him overboard as the case may be. I just hope we make it off this lifeboat soon.

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