A Challenge for All: ‘Lifeboat’ (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)

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After a non-movie related post on The Doors, I’m back to my old habits with good old Hitchcock. Yes, we discussed his films a lot on this blog and this isn’t going to stop! The occasion, today, is Maddy’s Second Annual Hitchcock Blogathon that she’s hosting on her blog Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. And Lifeboat (1944) is the film I chose. It might make Maddy seasick when she’s watching it, but it’s a pretty good one!

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A whole film that takes place in a lifeboat in the middle of the see…. This sounds like a challenge: it has to be interesting and also visually credible. Well, Hitchcock accepted that challenge and did it with brio.

Lifeboat was released during the war and that’s what the movie is about. After a boat is torpedoed by a German U-boat (that also sinks), the surviving passengers find themselves in a lifeboat. A German man from the U-boat is pulled aboard by the American and British passengers. They all have their different opinions on what to do with him as he is the enemy. He claims he was just a member of the crew following orders but, later, they learn he was the captain. The passengers have to deal with a cunning rival as well as with their own surviving.

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Lifeboat presents different characters that all have their word to say. I think that’s one of the first aspects that make this movie so worth-watching. Everyone participates and each actor has the occasion to share his acting skills. This is also the perfect kind of movie to observe how actors can work together as a team.

The first passenger to be seen on the lifeboat is the classy columnist Connie Porter. Actress Tallulah Bankhead is the one portraying her and that, with an impressive tact. In the line of Bette Davis or Marlene Dietrich, she’s one of these actresses who appears very sure of herself on screen. She flashes and is the center of attention, but only for good reasons. It is reported on IMDB that, in his book “The Dark Side of Genius”, Donald Spoto wrote that the actress often received an ovation from the crew. Interestingly, the last time Tallulah Bankhead appeared in a film before making Lifeboat was in 1932 (if we don’t include her cameo in Stage Door Canteen). Fresh as a rose when she’s first seen on the boat, Connie Porter wears her fur coat and her diamond bracelet. She still has her journalist material with her: a typewriter and a camera. Unfortunately, she will lose many of her possessions due to the agitated sea and careless passengers. Her own safety remains more important! Connie is constantly criticized by Kovak, an engine room crewman.

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Kovak is played by John Hodiak who was 29 at the time the film was released and he couldn’t look sexier. Lifeboat was among his first films. His teamwork with Tallulah Bankhead is incredible and the tension (as well as the passion) between the two characters adds a lot to the action of the film. His character, Kovak his the second one to access the boat. He’s a real man’s man who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. But, even if he’s rough and tough, he’s able to be nice when the occasion is presented.

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Not long after, they are joined by radioman Stanley who was played by Canadian-American actor Hume Cronyn. He’s one of my favourite characters in the film. This wasn’t Cronyn’s first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, as he appeared the year before in Shadow of a Doubt (his first film) as Herbie, Mr. Newton’s friend. His role in Lifeboat is surely very different, which proves an appreciate versatility.

Stanley is in love with Army nurse Alice (Mary Anderson). The actress was seen before in one of the most important films in movie history: Gone With the Wind, in the very small role of Maybelle Merriwether. Of course, Lifeboat is a much better way for us to judge her acting. Alice is sweet but she’s among the ones who lose their temper rapidly. Her acting is nuanced. She and Hume Cronyn have a beautiful chemistry and their two characters are simply lovely together. They definitely form one of my favourite couples in a Hitchcock film. They remind simple and there’s no pretention.

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William Bendix plays the German-American Gus Smith who is in pretty bad shape has his leg was injured. This eventually gives place to one of the most shocking scenes of the film: a leg amputation. We don’t see anything, but we KNOW it’s happening. Oh yes, it’s surely an adventure…

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Henry Hull plays the wealthy industrialist Rittenhouse and is one of the most sympathetic characters of the lot. However, he’s one who ABSOLUTELY wants to respects law and always wants to make sure things are done in a fair way (to the annoyance of some other passengers). Henry Hull interacts with an impressive ease with the rest of the cast and  manages perfectly to make his character likable (despite everything).

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Actor and civil rights activist Canada Lee is the only African American actor in the film. Interestingly, he was the first one to be cast and was allowed to write his own line (I don’t know if that’s something Hitchcock often allowed!). Unfortunately, his character is victim of some stereotypes that were due to the racism of the time (liberal John Steinbeck who wrote the story wasn’t too happy about it and pointed-out Hitchcock’s racism). His character, Joe Spencer, Connie’s steward, his noticeable for his patience and good manners. Luckily, the fact that Canada Lee was able to modify his lines probably allowed him not to fall too much into the stereotypes that were associated with African Americans.

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The third woman of the film was played by British-American actress Heather Angel. She’s Mrs. Higley, a young British woman who’s baby child has died during the sinking. Drove into madness, she breaks our heart and [SPOILER] her death by suicide could have been pretty daring at the time. [END OF SPOILER]. Heather Angel had to play a role that could easily become wrongly too theatrical but she managed to keep it convincing and fittable for a movie. It’s a small part, but probably one of those we’ll remember the best.

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FINALLY, the German U-boat captain was played by Austrian-born actor Walter Slezak. This character is always very calm but an awful manipulator! He certainly can give you chills. He’s a brilliant and subtle villain! As the movie progresses, it’s easier to have an opinion about the captain (because he’s first very ambiguous, until he commits something unforgivable).

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As mentioned before, the story of Lifeboat was written by notorious American author John Steinbeck under the request of Alfred Hitchcock himself. The story was adapted into a script by screenwriter Jo Swerling. Lifeboat is a story that gives a perfect place to development, both of the actions and the characters. We follow their journey in the boat and the various misadventures make us wonder: what will happen next?? That’s how the “Hitchcock suspense” is installed.

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Lifeboat was, of course, not filmed in the middle of the sea. This wasn’t something possible in 1944 (and still today…) but the final result reminds pretty convincing. The scenes were shot in a big water tank and to that, some background footages were added to depict the width of the Atlantic sea. The contrast between the background image and what was filmed isn’t too sharp so the illusion of them really being in the middle of the ocean works. Hitchcock also preferred to focus on the boat itself and not showing too many large shots, which is a good way to create a credible visual. Artificial waves, fog, and wind were created in the tank in order to give even more realism to the scenes. We rarely see the boat completely immobile. Interestingly, Hitchcock actually used four different boats so he could obtain the desired camera angles.

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If most of the action takes place in the lifeboat, there are two scenes that involve more and that leave me speechless:

1- The beginning, where we see the boat sinking in the ocean. Actually, pretty much the whole boat has already sunk, but what we see is one of the chimneys disappearing into the agitated ocean. It’s very chaotic and, then, a dead silence is installed. Note that Hitchcock didn’t use any music in the film (except for the flute played by Joe). For the director, it wouldn’t be realistic to hear music on a lifeboat has we couldn’t determine where it comes from. He was right and, once again, it was a good way to keep things as realistic as possible.

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2- [SPOILER] Toward the end, the lifeboat reaches a German ration boat. The massive boat eventually advances towards them and the contrast between it and the small lifeboat is terrifying. A low angle shot and a very dark cinematography make it appear like a cold monster. As he’s getting closer and closer, the panic is more and more present and a delightful tension keeps us at the edge of our seats! [END OF SPOILER]

The actors often got wet during the shooting and this one wasn’t easy. Cases of pneumonia were reported, Hume Cronyn had two ribs cracked and almost drowned during the filming of a challenging scene. Due to these many incidents, the production had to stop twice so the cast could recover. But, they luckily survived!

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For such a thrilling film, it is surprising that the Lifeboat wasn’t a financial success at the time. It actually lost money. It also provoked certain controversies, but it didn’t prevent critics to recognize the good acting, good story, and good filming. Lifeboat was nominated for three Oscars: Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Story (John Steinbeck) and Best Cinematography (Glen MacWilliams). It is probably not Hitchcock most well-known films, but it remains among his most worthy.

I’ve already seen A LOT of Alfred Hitchcock films, but, interestingly, that’s one of the last I ever saw. When I watched it for this blogathon, it was actually only my third viewing! (Note to myself: buy the DVD). I’m glad I chose it as a subject as it is a revealing movie, one that has many interesting aspects to discuss and, let’s say the true words: it’s a perfect entertainment!

Let me thank the lovely Maddy for hosting this much-appreciated blogathon! Don’t forget to take a look at the other articles here!

See you (hopefully, not on a lifeboat)!

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Bibliography

“Lifeboat, Trivia.” IMDB, nd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037017/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Consulted on Jul 6, 2018.

“Lifeboat (film).” Wikipedia. 29 Jun 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifeboat_(film). Consulted  on Jul 6 2018.

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