Saturday, September 14, 2013


I am pleased to see that TCM is finally premiering Lifeboat, which I think is the last of the movies Alfred Hitchcock made after coming to Hollywood to get a showing on TCM. It's this week's Essential at 8:00 PM, and will be getting a repeat on September 22.

The movie starts off with Tallulah Bankhead sitting alone in a small boat, with a bunch of debris around her and sounds of the sea. It's fairly obvious that she's in a lifeboat, even though she's looking far too fabulous to be in a lifeboat. Bankhead is playing Connie Porter, a society reporter who thinks that all of this is going to make a wonderful story for her to write about. Indeed, she's trying to write the story on her typewriter as we speak. Soon enough, however, another survivor shows up: Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the ship's boiler room. Other survivors from the doomed ship eventually wind up in the lifeboat. It turns out that the ship was bombed by a Nazi U-boat, which puts the survivors in some danger. It doesn't help, either, that they don't exactly get along. Connie is really a spoiled brat, consistently irritated when she doesn't get her way, while Kovac is one of those old working-class New Deal socialists, who hates the wealthy. Here, this means not only Connie, but also the businessman Rittenhouse (Henry Hull). The other survivors include radio operator Sparks (Hume Cronyn), nurse Alice (Mary Anderson), ship's servant Joe (Canada Lee), wounded soldier Gus (William Bendix), and a woman with shell shock and a dead baby.

These castaways have enough problems on their own, when one more passenger shows up to complicate matters: this survivor responds to being pulled on board with a "Danke". Obviously, he's German. And there's that pesky little war on. He must have come from the U-boat, which was destroyed by one of the Allied ships in the convoy. Since there is a war, the passengers of the lifeboat might have been right in not picking up Willy (Walter Slezak) in the first place, but they didn't know then that he was German. And the passengers have enough bickering among them that they wouldn't have been able to come to an agreement on that matter anyway. They can't figure out what to do with him, but they calso can't figure out how to get the lifeboat anywhere where they might get help from an Allied vessel. It seems the only person who has any good knowledge on how to captain a vessel and get them anywhere without dying is Willy -- but certainly, he's going to lead them to their doom, or at least a very upleasant time as prisoners of war.

Willy proceeds to manipulate the passengers, using his knowledge of English, which the passengers for the longest time don't realize he has, to figure out what's going on between them. Oh, there are other things Willy's hiding, too, but those will come out in due time. The Allied survivors know that Willy means business, but they're still faced with the problem that there doesn't seem to be any way they can survive without him. That having been said, food and water are running low, so they may not survive even with Willy at the helm. This galvanizes the survivors into finally facing their dilemma head-on leading to a stunning climax.

Lifeboat is a very well-made movie which shows Alfred Hitchcock's mastery of the suspense genre, as well as his ability to create a gripping story in a small space. But in addition to that, it's also a fascinating character study, both on the individual characters as well as how the characters act as a group. There are the strong-willed, but diametrically opposed Connie and Kovac, there's the class elements, and there are also relatively weak or submissive characters in the form of the nurse and Sparks. The issues of manipulation, and how the group reacts when they finally react as one, are also quite discomfiting. As with The Incident 20 years later, we'd all like to think that we'd act nobly in the face of a crisis like the ones the passengers are facing, but the reality is that most of us wouldn't. Nobody on the Lifeboat should come away proud of the way they acted.

Alfred Hitchcock received his second Oscar nomination for Best Director for Lifeboat, and this is the one time I think he clearly should have won, as he made a much better movie with more interesting portrayals from his actors than Leo McCarey did with Going My Way. Lifeboat has received a DVD release. (The Incident, which I referenced above, is still not available on DVD.)

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