Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lifeboat (1944) (For the Love of Film III)

(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 if you are an auteur, 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.

Alfred Hitchcock wanted a cross-section of characters; it would be trickier to make a movie about how only the kitchen waitstaff survived a boat sinking. And so the Lifeboat people, adrift after a Nazi sub torpedoes their ship, 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, an 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 rescued 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 such as 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 comes 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 lipstick 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 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 shot of him surreptitiously checking his compass. It's Willi's yawn after the passengers have tried to calm the grieving mother, a 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 extra 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 changes and thought the film 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, claimed the Bos, 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 OWI 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? The character of 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 as a whole 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 in Lifeboat, 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 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.)

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 sinuous shot--an elegant 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 reached 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 (so it is said) 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.)


Tom Block said...

Nice, Siren. I've never understood why people think this one has little to offer; every time I throw it in I get completely sucked in again. Its ending, more than a great comeback to any charge that Hitch was just doing his bit for wartime propaganda, is so refreshing because it ends on that question--and it's a big one, one that points directly at Nuremberg--which the director (and writers) admit they don't have a good answer for. (Or, at the least, not enough confidence in themselves to play God and push their answer on the audience.) That kind of humility in the face of the big questions that the war raised was depressingly rare then, but I guess it's easy to act like you've got all the answers when your enemies are freaking Nazis.

As for Tallulah, there's one shot of her that's always hit me as one of the most brazenly sexual moments in all Hitchcock: the one where she's lying in Hodiak's lap with her blouse stretched tightly across her breasts. Every time I see it my brain runs the same course: "Look at these poor, exhausted, deprived people, think of all the suffering they've endured, think of--GOOD GOD, CHECK OUT BANKHEAD'S BREASTS!"

grandoldmovies said...

Terrific post. That quote from Hitch on 'Hairdressing' - ouch! I like that suggestion, of finding spots for Tallulah to appear in other Hitch films - maybe as one of the neighbors in Rear Window (do you think she could have done the role of the exhibitionist?).

The Siren said...

"t's a big one, one that points directly at Nuremberg" -- just so, Mr. Block. And yeah, Tallulah's looks had already hardened by then but she was still one hell of a good-looking dame, and didn't she know it, the showboat. God I love her.

GrandOldMovies, she totally could have, but then again, would we believe she was saving herself for *anybody*?

Shamus said...

Hitchcock was also doing his bit for the war effort when he was shooting Foreign Correspondent, but was getting bored when Joel McCrea was having trouble finding the right tone for the lines in the final "here come the German planes" scene, which was the last scene which was to be shot for the movie. It being late in the day and all, the crew was getting restive, so Hitchcock tells McCrea to shoot the scene himself and wrap up production when he felt satisfied. And then went home.

So, McCrea keeps trying, getting frustrated and slightly desperate but in drops another director from a neighbouring lot who had just finished the day's shooting for The Long Voyage Home. John Ford then gives the script a once over, tells McCrea how to go about the lines, gives the cameraman the instructions and shoots the scene- the only time Ford ever directed in a Hitchcock movie (I hope)...

Kirk said...

LIFEBOAT is consdered lesser Hitchcock? I didn't know that. If I had to make a list of Hitchcock's 10 best, this film would make the cut easily. It might even be in the top five.

I've only seen a few movies with Tallulah Bankhead, but she always reminds me, and especially in this film, or Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE. Does anyone know if Bette Davis based that character on Bankhead?

rcocean said...

Great post, love "Lifeboat" and "Bankhead". Slezak should be given even more credit than you did in your post, he's quite good as the U-boat Kapitan. I love it when Bankhead says "Kapitan?" and Slezak says "Ja" and his face immediately registers "oh, Shit".

Hodiak is good too - he died young. Quite a sad life.

Tinky said...

Nicely put, Siren. I will have to watch this film again with your descriptions of complexity in mind.

And I love your wish for more Hitch-head collaborations! If only the man hadn't been so fond of blondes! I like his brunettes much better....


Vanwall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vanwall said...

Actually, I never took the protagonists in the lifeboat as dunces - they were all competent at what they did, and Hitch used the war to give a pretty realistic appraisal of how their ordinariness is the glue binding them together when the chips are down. Slezak was a marvel in a lot of films, especially this one, (and one of my faves, 1947's "Riffraff" - Teddy Tetzlaff's sly little humor/noir) but Bendix is so good here, he really was a brilliant lug. Hodiak is so underrated, IMHO, he had his own regular guy persona on film like no other's - even his stoker here has an intelligent edge. Canada Lee and Rex Ingram from "Sahara" - two unusual performances for the period. Excellent review!

gmoke said...

Once upon a time, I saw some Japanese WWII propaganda movies. The one that struck me was, I think, called "Five Comrades," about a squad of soldiers in China. It was remarkably similar to the American films of the period and I always wondered about a double bill that featured two sides of the propaganda wars. Would be interesting.

"Lifeboat" was always a favorite of mine, the fishing scene sticks in my memory, and the relationship between Hodiak and Bankhead is complex. She ain't half as smart as she thinks she is and he ain't half as dumb as she thinks he is either. The politics may strike us as obvious or naive these days but there are more points of view displayed than are permissible (or should I say bankable) today.

John Fitzpatrick said...

This film elicited one of the cinema's great bons mots. Explaining his desire for no music, Hitch reportedly cited the fact that the film takes place in the middle of the ocean: "Where would the music come from?" To which David Raksin, who had expressed interest in writing the score, responded, "Ask Mr. Hitchcock to explain where the cameras come from and I'll tell him where the music comes from."

The remark has been variously attributed to Hugo Friedhofer, who eventually wrote the abbreviated score, and Alfred Newman, who was general music director of Fox. But it sounds like Raksin to me, and this version was reported by Tony Thomas, who knew all three composers.

Yojimboen said...

Rozsaphile – If you ever happen upon arranger/composer Lyn Murray's memoir, "Musician - A Hollywood Journal", grab it. Besides being a fascinating history of the pro music world of the studio system, it also contains the sad recounting of Lyn Murray’s “suicidal career move” when, after having scored To Catch a Thief to AH’s satisfaction, Hitch asked him to score The Trouble With Harry. Unfortunately Murray was busy, so he suggested Hitchcock might want to meet his best friend, Bernie Herrmann.

X. Trapnel said...

Friedhofer's few minutes of music are pretty terrific, from the scurrying, shrieking strings (and wailing siren obbligato) to Herrmannesque brass chords as the camera pans over the flotsam/jetsam like so much Xanadu inventory, stopping only as Miss Bankhead inspects a run in her stocking.

The Siren said...

The Lifeboat music, brief though it is, really is wonderful, perfectly mood-setting. Rozsaphile, that is an awesome story, especially because Hitchcock wasn't often one-upped like that. And Yojimboen...yikes. Yes, worst career move ever.

RCocean, I love that bit too. Wonderful interplay between Slezak and Bankhead. I've been trying to run down info on his career, beyond the info that's out there on his father etc., because I'm curious about what he did during the war, as a former Austrian national. The fact that he was happy to play the German heavy pretty much tells the story about his sympathies, but still, I'd like to know how his relatives fared, etc.

Gmoke, Hodiak is good in this and he and Bankhead have some real smokin' chemistry.

Yojimboen said...

An odd coincidence, X., one I hadn’t noticed before. After Hitch rejected John Steinbeck’s initial draft of Lifeboat, he had MacKinlay Kantor try a pass at the screenplay (they parted company after a couple of weeks, so who knows how much of Kantor’s work remains).

MacKinlay Kantor and Hugo Friedhofer, two major dudes who were involved together on another pretty good opus called TBYOOL.

X. Trapnel said...

Kantor's verse novel Glory for Me (TBYOOL) was not an independent work but was written at Goldwyn's behest. Needless to say the latter was nonplussed, and it is indeed a pretty strange production (though it has its moments) that Robert Sherwood licked into plausibility.

One among the many, many things I admire about Lifeboat is the fact that the Henry Hull character is not a patrician, but a self-made man, a truly subversive touch (Steinbeck?).

Trish said...

I remember Lifeboat being on television quite often when I was young, but I don't think I've ever seen the whole film as an adult. Now I can hardly wait... Wartime films have an edge to them, because everyone was just winging it, never knowing how the tide was going to turn. Great background details, Siren!