Hitchmania: Lifeboat (1944)

lifeboat

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Alfred Hitchcock is once more pressed into the propaganda service for the Americans with Lifeboat, a 1944 film that signifies one of his first confined-space narratives. The director was indeed very conscious of the fact that many of his first Hollywood movies were certainly supportive of the war effort and the Allies, what with Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur also serving as examples of his propaganda works.

Of the three aforementioned American propaganda pieces, Lifeboat is the best. Oddly, it received plenty of critical flak from what many believed as an overly sympathetic portrayal of “the enemy.” Writer John Steinbeck wound up penning what is termed the “original screen story,” but even he wound up unimpressed with the treatment of his material.

Lifeboat centres on a group of British and Americans floating adrift in the North Atlantic after their ship was sunk in combat. Connie (Tallulah Bankhead), a columnist, is the first to find the lifeboat. She is quickly joined by Kovac (John Hodiak), a burly seaman, and several others. A nurse (Mary Anderson) and the ship’s steward (Canada Lee) are also among those on the lifeboat.

When a German (Walter Slezak) is rescued, the lifeboat occupants enter into a series of debates over what to do with him. Some, generally the British intellectuals like Connie and her pal Ritt (Henry Hull), want to treat him with kindness in the “Christian way.” Others, like Kovac and another seaman (William Bendix), want to throw him overboard. As the lifeboat moves toward hopeful safety, the true motivations of the German surface.

Given the era and the war, it’s not overly hard to guess what had to happen with the German. Despite the critical outcry over the “glorification” of Slezak’s character, he’s hardly treated with much equity. Hitchcock makes no bones about his presentation from the start, with a few sinister glares and some insightful secrets popping up early. There is little doubt about where the Nazi is headed.

In Steinbeck’s treatment, actually a novella, there are some differences in how the character is approached. He is less effective in the novella, coming aboard the ship with a broken arm. And he isn’t a captain, either. Hitch’s decision to structure the movie around the Bankhead’s character (more or less) turned the action away from Steinbeck’s first-person struggle between Kovac and the Nazi.

And there is little doubt about the moral superiority of the other characters, with even the kindest and most naïve pressed into service for the greater good. Even Ritt eventually muses of the enemies being “not even human,” echoing that they be exterminated in a late-movie war-cry that has more in common with Hitler’s insanity than any Christian charity.

These bits and pieces make it absolutely clear where Lifeboat’s loyalty lies. Despite being rather heavy-handed in carving out its morality, it’s still a pretty good picture. Hitch certainly has some framing issues with such small territory to run, but he still creatively zeroes in on objects at the right time and covers some of the movie’s tensest moments with ingenuity and style.

Take, for instance, Lifeboat’s best moment: the amputation of Gus’ leg. Here, Hitchcock conducts the players like various members of an orchestra. There is a tune-up that includes Gus getting drunk on brandy and the German calmly assessing the situation. Then there are some broader shots as preparations are made to do the deed. And finally, the amputation takes place (off-camera, of course) and the reactions of various characters tell the tale. It’s a wonderfully tense and emotional scene.

There are other interesting touches, like the post-coital way various characters lay across each other after a particularly rough run of things, that point to that classic Hitchcock flavour. The climactic scene of the Allies laying waste to the revealed traitor is also, as titled in the screenplay, an “orgasm of murder.” In this way, the filmmaker is careful not to make his good guys too good.

Yet Lifeboat still is very much a big-boned propaganda picture for all its better virtues and that can make it an interesting slog. As mentioned, it’s a pretty good picture. But critic Pauline Kael wasn’t altogether wrong in calling it “ham-handed” and its general depiction of humankind drifting would be better served without the assertion of the innate moral superiority of its lethal heroes.

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