Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lifeboat

Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to turn a cliched scenario into something compelling. That's what he does with 1944's Lifeboat; he took a stock setup with a cross section of stereotypes, dumped them in a pressure cooker, and watched them crack.

A freighter carrying passengers and cargo to London is sunk by a German U-boat, which even fired on the lifeboats as they were deployed. But the ship's crew managed to knock out the u-boat with a well-placed shell, and survivors of the freighter begin collecting on a lifeboat that somehow escaped destruction. We meet a hodgepodge of people including socialite reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), no-nonsense engine worker Kovac (John Hodiak), injured crewman Gus (William Bendix), shipyard owner Mr. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), nurse Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), and others. Soon, another is brought on board: a German sailor (Walter Slezak). After debating what to do with him (Kovac favors of throwing him overboard), the group decides to keep him, not knowing if he's trustworthy. Without working navigational equipment, the survivors sail on, hoping to reach land or a ship.

Hitchcock filmed the entire movie on one set. The effect is isolating and claustrophobic; even with all that ocean space, there's nowhere to go. It's an impressive job; it really feels for the most part these characters are adrift at sea (only the star-lit sky is obviously artificial). There is an immediacy of physicality. Watching it, you feel cold and wet when they get blasted by waves, and when they aren't progressing as the sun beats down, you become anxious for a drink. In fact, several of the actors got pneumonia, and one almost drowned.

To keep the story from going adrift, Hitchcock sprinkles in challenges the character must overcome: a storm, debates over command and captive, low supplies, and a makeshift amputation. The true nature of the German is revealed gradually. We the audience see him doing things behind the others' backs, but we're not too sure what he's going for until later.

Other subplots aren't as successful. We get a lot of back story for some, usually referring to loved ones elsewhere, and those weren't really needed. The exception is Gus' background as a dancer with a girl back home. He doesn't want to lose his leg because he thinks she'll run off with an old boyfriend, but Constance uses logic against him in a satisfying manner. The difference is that moves the story along; it convinces Gus to get the amputation. The others -Alice's affair, the attraction between Kovac and Constance (not very convincing. Their interaction is best as intense dislike) - feel like padding. Even at 90 minutes, the movie feels overlong.

And not even Hitchcock was above throwing in a token black guy, Joe (Canada Lee). Reportedly, John Steinbeck (who wrote the story) was offended by what he saw as Hitchcock's racist condescension. I'm merely bothered he didn't give him more to do than play an instrument and occasionally help the others.

Still, when the movie focuses on the situation and how the characters are dealing with it and each other, the movie's great. While pretty tense and harrowing, it's pretty funny, particularly with Bankhead's character. When we first see her, she's wearing a mink coat and sitting comfortably on board with all her luggage and a camera while the others are covered with oil and dirt and shivering. Over the course of the movie, we see her lose all symbols of her status and position.

The movie is also heartbreaking at times. Early on, Joe brings in a shell-shocked woman (Heather Angel) and her infant (never seen beyond a bundle), and the baby dies shortly after. When she comes out of delirium, the woman asks where her baby is. The next morning, she's missing and so is the anchor.

There was a controversy at the time of release because some critics saw it as pro-Nazi. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The movie is a call for people to band together and forget their petty differences to repel fascism.

SPOILER ALERT.
The German is the craftiest, most intelligent character in the movie and the most accomplished sailor (he's the captain who ordered the attack on the lifeboats). He leads them to a German supply boat, hordes hidden water and vitamins, and hides his true evil behind a jolly exterior. He's a murderer and a manipulator, but when they unite against them, he's powerless.
END SPOILER ALERT

Lifeboat is not listed among Hitchcock's notable works, but it's a riveting exercise in tension in a deliberately restricted filmmaking environment. While it drags at times, it definitely shouldn't be overlooked. And yes, Hitch still gets a cameo.

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