30 September 2010

The Many Stories Within Hitchcock's Lifeboat

Okay so upon first viewing Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) is the story of a group of disparate characters fighting for survival on a lifeboat during World World II. But as with a lot of good films it's got a lot more going on.

It is of course a rabidly anti German propaganda film. There were many such movies made immediately preceding and during the war as I discussed at length earlier this year. One shouldn't assume that the term propaganda in relation to a film is pejorative. First of all not all propaganda is bad. Secondly one can choose to ignore the overt message and simply enjoy the story. Lifeboat features Walter Slezak as a particularly odious type of Nazi: the duplicitous and arrogant kind. Slezak as Willy epitomizes a lot of what the Nazi represented to Americans during the war and indeed ever since. He's unquestionably intelligent, resourceful and strong but uses his talents for his own purposes which are as twisted as a swastika. Lifeboat is very clear that Nazis are not to be trusted and must be summarily wiped out. Towards the end of the movie we meet a younger more innocent German and it is clear that his innocent young mind has been corrupted by Nazism. The allies are doing the Germans a favor by defeating Hitler and his cohorts. It's impossible to argue with such sentiments. So Lifeboat is particularly heavy handed in dealing with the Nazis. But then, they deserved it.

Lifeboat also deals with issues of class. Tallulah Bankhead is Constance Porter. She's an internationally renowned journalist who hobnobs with the upper class, which gladly opens its doors to her. Connie has pulled herself up by her high heeled boot straps and is most comfortable with the rich and famous having become both herself.  Also aboard the lifeboat is Henry Hull as Rittenhouse, a shipping tycoon worth a fortune. Though possessive of a common touch, he positively reeks of the dough that he has in bushels. Meanwhile there are several crew members from the ill fated ship and, is the case with virtually every mariner, are of humble origins. They're proud of it too. John Hodiak is Kovac a Chicagoan who is pure working class grit. Like Gus, a Brooklyn native (judging from WWII films a third of America's fight forces hailed from that New York borough) he believes in simple values and simple solutions. Both are sorely lacking in education, refinement and any appreciation for nuance. It's inevitable that these representatives of opposing social stratas will butt heads. You may or may not be surprised at who is depicted as having the sharper instincts when it comes to dealing with the enemy.

Adding to the tension is Connie's supposition, which she merely hints at, that Kovac is a commie. Because this notion is only lighted touched upon it hardly seems worth exploring. Of far more significant is the romance that develops between the two. They are an odd couple to say the least. Kovac accuses Connie of "slumming." She raises no objection to the charge and merely snuggles up against the big lug. Never mind that they have nothing in common. Maybe the moral is that lifeboats in the middle of the war torn Atlantic Ocean make strange bedfellows or that Yanks of all stripes can find happiness together, never mind their stations in life.

Sadly, Lifeboat has a very paternalistic depiction of its one African American character (that it has one at all is laudable) Joe. The screenplay was written by John Steinbeck who intended Joe to be a much stronger personality than he ultimately was allowed to be in the film. Yes, he has a sort of earthy wisdom and is well versed in the good book. But he is deferential to whites (acting surprised and ultimately demurring when asked to vote on an issue). Moreover he is a reformed pick pocket. This ends up being useful in the story but why did it have to be the Black guy who is the ex thief? (I suppose the answer is because the movie was made in the 1940s.) At least he doesn't play dice.

Ultimately it is the ability of all on board to unite that allows them to defeat the Nazi. The symbolism is clear and not far off from reality. After all the Nazis were ultimately out numbered and ganged up on by the allies (not that they didn't have it coming).

The cast is wonderful. Bankhead is positively perfect and one sexy dame. She did middle age real well. The cast also includes Hume Cronyn as an Englishman (one with only a wisp of an accent). William Bendix is the ill fated Willy and though an actor of decidedly limited range, was made for the part. Hull is also perfectly cast and Canada Lee makes the most of his role as Joe.

Lifeboat was shot on a backlot but if you know that in advance you'll forget it once the opening credits role. Watching Lifeboat you'll find yourself wondering how they managed to film out in the ocean. The fog is low and ever present except when sun or rain is needed. In terms of weather there's nothing to suggest you're not seeing the real deal. The constant bobbing of the waves, interrupted only by their rampaging during storms, is quite effective.

On most lists of Hitchcock's best films, Lifeboat wouldn't crack the top ten. This speaks to what a prodigious career Hitch had. It's a helluva story well told. It can be enjoyed at many levels in many ways. There's a lot going on and it's all compelling viewing.

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