(This post is the Siren's contribution to our blogathon, For the Love of Film III, raising money for the National Film Preservation Foundation to stream The White Shadow, one of the first films worked on by a young Alfred Hitchcock. If you like the post, or indeed the Siren's work in general, she urges you to click the button below and donate as generously as possible to this cause.)
It's good to be king, and it's good to be an auteur. For one thing, if you're an acknowledged auteur, there's no need to worry that when you're dead and gone, someone will hold a blogathon for your rediscovered movie and give all the attention to your pushy assistant.
There's a small catch, though, in that you might make Lifeboat, and it won't get all the love it deserves because hey, you also made about a half-dozen towering masterpieces, and this film is merely very, very good.
Naturally Alfred Hitchcock wanted a cross-section of characters; it could be trickier to make a movie about how only the kitchen waitstaff survived a sinking. And so the Lifeboat people adrift after a Nazi sub torpedoes their boat are a motley lot. Kovac (John Hodiak) is a worker from the engine room, proudly grease-stained and loudly left-wing, like a handsome inversion of Eugene O'Neil's Hairy Ape. Alice (Mary Anderson) is a gentle, pacifist nurse; Stanley (Hume Cronyn, iffy accent but one of his best performances) is an English merchant seaman. Joe, played by the great, ill-fated Canada Lee, is another sailor, as is Gus (second-billed William Bendix) who has a leg full of shrapnel. The industrialist Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) managed to save a single cigar before the ship went down; the shell-shocked Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel) clings to a baby who has already drowned. And there's Constance Porter, the mink-draped journalist played by the one and only Tallulah Bankhead. The U-Boat was itself sunk in the firefight, and soon the survivors have pulled aboard Willi (Walter Slezak), who seems to speak only German and claims to be a simple sailor like the others.
Lifeboat checks off each item on the list of Hitchcock's strengths. Suspenseful direction, to start with the obvious, in scenes like the passengers fighting a vicious storm, only to hear the Nazi exhorting them to get it together--in the English he claimed he didn't speak. There's psychology, as the peril on the boat is at least as much from emotions and weakness as it is from the sea and privation. And there is humor, too; amidst the pounding waves Hitchcock gives us Tallulah's indignant "You speak English!" to Slezak, as well as her expression when she tries to retrieve her suitcase and comes up with a liptsick and a comb.
When people describe Hitchcock as cold or cerebral, the Siren shakes her head. In some films, maybe, but almost never entirely, and not here. Check out the quietly heartbreaking zoom toward Heather Angel's empty, upturned arms after her baby's corpse has been slipped into the ocean. And the first indication of Slezak's menace isn't the first shot of him surreptitiously checking his compass--it's Willi's yawn after the passengers have tried to calm the mother, an open warning of his heartlessness that no one heeds.
Above all, Lifeboat showcases Hitchcock's timing. He insisted there be no score; there's music only at the beginning and end. Yet Lifeboat is a gloriously rhythmic movie. The boat's bobbing and the sound of the water slapping are all the emphasis needed. When it starts raining, and the half-dead occupants grab a sail to catch the water, the camera moves in on the drops spotting the canvas…and stays there after the rain stops. The amount of time we spend looking at that useless bit of damp is inexpressibly perfect--not one superfluous microsecond. So many of Hitchcock's celebrated moments are big, kinetic, heart-clutching, but Lifeboat offers a different sort of genius, like the single change of angle and camera distance as the delirious Gus imagines he's sharing a drink with his girl.
Even upon release Lifeboat didn't do so hot with critics. The Siren's beloved James Agee said the allegory was "nicely knit, extensively shaded and detailed, and often fascinating," but it wasn't as good as allegories by Shakespeare, Kafka, or Joyce. (At least not being Shakespeare is something most people get over fairly early in life.) John Steinbeck, who wrote the short story the movie was based on, was displeased with the film's changes and thought it would hurt the war effort if released abroad. Bosley Crowther sputtered that Lifeboat "sold out democratic ideals and elevated the Nazi superman." By way of qualification he added that doubtless no one planned to make a movie that undermined democracy, but still, if the Nazis got hold of Lifeboat, with a few edits they could release it in their own theaters.
In fairness to Crowther (and don't we all strive for that) he was expressing exactly what the Office of War Information had said about the original script. OWI, set up by Roosevelt to advise the movie industry on how to support the war effort, understood that the passengers were stand-ins for the Allies, but couldn't see why these people had to be such drips. You can almost hear the OWI staff pouring themselves a stiff drink as they wearily compose their memos. Constance is "a selfish, predatory, amoral, international adventuress." (You say that like it's a bad thing, boys.) Kovac boasts too much of his sexual conquests and besides, he (probably) cheats at cards--were the writers suggesting Americans are lecherous and dishonest? Rittenhouse underlines class differences in the States, and we don't have those, or at least, we don't talk about them in front of the neighbors. The original script had an argument over Spain that included Connie addressing the pro-Loyalist Kovac as "Tovarich" and ended with Rittenhouse observing that "a new Spain is coming." The agency succeeded in getting rid of that, although the "Tovarich" comment was moved elsewhere and Connie still gets to needle Kovac: "Oh, I get it. A fellow traveler. I thought the Comintern was dissolved."
Other OWI objections sailed past the filmmakers. The agency, staffed largely by liberals as you might have inferred, spent a fair amount of time trying to get Hollywood to dial down the racism. The manual they sent the studios politely asks, for example, that scripts refrain from describing the enemy in the Pacific as "little buck-toothed treacherous Jap[s]." Clearly OWI didn't succeed all that often, and here they couldn't even strip Canada Lee's character of the nickname "Charcoal." Nor did they manage to alter the scene where the passengers give Lee a vote on Slezak's fate and he refuses to use it, although Lee's sardonic head-tilt on his line, "Do I get a vote too?" is its own kind of tell.
Credited screenwriter Jo Swerling and others did make some changes, most notably adding the scene where Willi pushes Gus over the side, a ruthless culling of the weak as brutal, and pointedly political, as anything in Hitchcock. Hitchcock achieves effects just by keeping the camera on the face of a good actor, when Willi tells the outraged passengers that Gus had to die. You can see in Slezak's eyes, so precisely you can pause the frame on a player, the exact moment when Willi realizes that he has lost his hold on these people. (Here. It's at 3:13.)
And then they turn on Willi, only the backs of the mob visible as they beat him with their fists, then Stanley grabs a piece of wood, Joe stands apart, and there's just one glimpse of the German's bloodied face before they throw him over the side. The script calls it "an orgasm of murder," and the exhaustion afterward indeed seems almost sexual, Mary Anderson arching her back and stretching out her legs. Hitchcock responds to the violence with another elegant, sinuous shot--a small pan down Rittenhouse to the shoe he holds, the one he picked up to hammer Willi's hands away from the side of the boat.
The Siren's regard for this movie dates all the way back to her pre-teen years and her first encounter with Tallulah Bankhead's memoirs. Bankhead, an Alabama gal like the Siren herself, may not have been the ideal role model, but she sure was educational: "I was a hedonist before I knew what hedonism was," she wrote, as the Siren dove for her dictionary. Lifeboat gave Bankhead her one movie role that lives on in the public memory. She was proud that she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, even pointing it out in the caption to Lifeboat still she included in her autobiography.
Bankhead, as the Siren recalls, didn't write up the most notorious story from the Lifeboat set. The boat was floating in a huge tank on the Fox lot, and as she scrambled around, the persistently panty-free star was flashing the entire cast and crew. It was all fun and games until a reporter from a ladies' magazine came to visit, caught a better view of Bankhead than she had bargained for and nearly had an aneurysm. The head of Fox publicity went to tell Hitchcock that he needed to, er, put a lid on Tallulah and the director mused out loud: "In a case like this it's hard to tell where the responsibility lies. You might consider that this is a matter for the wardrobe department, or perhaps for the makeup people--or perhaps it's a matter for hairdressing." Thus endeth the Case of the Missing Underpinnings.
She came down with pneumonia after weeks of being doused with water, but still they got along well, Tallulah and Hitch. He called her "Baghead," she called him "Bitchcock" and when the movie was released he described her as having given a "Bancock" performance. You get the feeling that they could have gone on like that forever--Cockbank? Headcock?--and it's a pity they never worked together again. In the fantasy cinema in the Siren's head, she likes to give Bankhead a cameo as the nun who materializes at the end of Vertigo. You have to admit, Tallulah in full wimple would be enough to startle anyone into falling off a bell tower. Lifeboat is all we've got from these two, though. And there is no actress, living or dead, whom the Siren would rather see volunteering her diamond bracelet as a fishing lure, no voice the Siren would rather hear utter the line, "I can recommend the bait. I bit on it myself."
Despite her partiality for her Alabama paisano, the Siren assures you that she has no similar soft spot for movies that coddle fascists. Pace Crowther, Lifeboat does nothing of the sort. The Nazi's advantage comes not from being some Wagnerian demigod but from being a sociopath--he has water and energy pills, and he shares neither with the desperate people who pulled him out of the water. Willi's preternatural calm, his courage, are disturbing but necessary. Dramatically necessary, because otherwise we can't comprehend why seven people would, first unknowingly and then with sullen resignation, permit Willi to escort them to a German boat and the certain fate of a concentration camp. And it's vital to the allegory, because the governments in Europe and America had done the same thing by appeasing Hitler throughout the 1930s. Lifeboat doesn't try to pretty that up.
But neither is Lifeboat straight-up propaganda, as it's sometimes read nowadays. It was released in January of 1944, when the Allies' demand of unconditional surrender no longer seemed like a pipe dream. The German supply ship heaves into sight, only to be shelled by one of our own vessels. And the citizens of the lifeboat, in the closing moments, find themselves hauling in another German, a young sailor who echoes Willi: "Danke schoen." Rittenhouse, who moments before had wondered, "what are you going to do with people like that," now has an answer: "Exterminate him! Exterminate them all!" The weak, vacillating Ritt, easily the least sympathetic of the lot, is overruled. But his question remains, asked by Stanley after the sailor pulls a gun on the rescuers: "What are you gonna do with people like that?" Kovac responds, "I dunno. I was thinking of Mrs. Higgins and her baby. And Gus." Now that the end is in sight, the people on the boat, and by extension the Allies, don't want to lose their humanity. Connie answers in closeup: "Well. Maybe they can answer that." Hitchcock ends on Tallulah, surrounded by debris, the lives in the boat safe for now as the costs mount around them.
(Material on the making of Lifeboat is from Hollywood Goes to War by Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, and The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto. The Siren also recommends David Cairns on Lifeboat, right here.)