All At Sea

After the blasting Hugo Friedhofer score, and titles which weirdly assert “By John Steinbeck” and “Screenplay by Jo Swerling,” we get a moody shot trawling the misty Atlantic waters of the 20th Century Fox studio tank, alighting upon curious and suggestive items of flotsam, or do I mean jetsam?

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The hand of cards Hitch was seen playing in his last movie, SHADOW OF A DOUBT? If so, this would be a sort of phantasmal cameo appearance, the shadow of a previous walk-on.

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This copy of The New Yorker makes me wonder if each piece of floating detritus stands for a different character in the film? This would be Tallulah Bankhead, photo-journalist and society lady. But I’m not sure I can be bothered stretching the metaphor all the way to include every last but of bobbing debris. Let’s just say the bobbing apples are a reminder of Hitch’s upbringing.

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“What are those letters on your diaphragm?” Tallulah Bankhead drawls to John Hodiak, and indeed, he is a heavily initialed sailor man, with a prominent “B.M.” on his chest. Who might those letters belong to?

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Barbara Morton — Pat Hitchcock’s character in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN?

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The Bald Mexican — Peter Lorre in SECRET AGENT?

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Bob Montgomery? We never do find out.

LIFEBOAT, while very enjoyable, seems strangely divided between propagandistic, artistic and genre tendencies. While savagely anti-German, it also portrays the jolly Nazi captain Walter Slezak as the only competent and committed man on board, and as Hitchcock and Truffaut agreed, during the moments when the other passengers are plotting against him, they appear quite monstrous. Then again, Slezak’s character really is the embodiment of evil, picking off the weakest of his fellow survivors by way of psychological manipulation techniques bordering on hypnosis.

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What Slezak brings to the role, apart from his authentic accent, is a rather chummy, guy-you-can-trust quality, which colludes with his cherubic (and slightly Hitch-like) appearance to create a nice complexity of effect. In many ways, this guy would make a great captain of the lifeboat, were it not for his tendency to dispose of the weak.

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Do we believe, necessarily, that William Bendix is a jitterbug champion? I wonder if Hitch had a strong idea in his mind of what jitterbuggery actually consists of? I guess WB would be good and hoisting his partner through the air, but I can’t quite picture him cutting a rug. Trampling it into dust, perhaps. Still, Bendix makes a fine lumpenproletariat, even if he does tend to overdo his William Bendix impersonation at times. My favourite Bendix is DETECTIVE STORY, in which he pulls off the impossible feat of out-over-acting Kirk Douglas, going so far over the top he comes out the bottom into a new form or underplaying. It’s like William Bendix parodying William Bendix parodying William Bendix, and it’s a beautiful thing. You won’t believe me but, I’ll say it — moving.

Hitchcock’s cameo, in a newspaper ad for a miracle weight-loss product (or “obesity slayer”) is one of his wittiest, nicely solving the problem of how to do a walk-on in a tightly contained narrative (floating past as a corpse was briefly considered) as well as a chance to show off the results of his recent diet. Many viewers wrote in asking where they could be Reduco, we are told.

If Reduco is Hitchcock’s diet pill, then presumably Emerg-O is William Castle’s personal brand of Viagra.

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I don’t mind John Hodiak in this! He still looks a bit like a Tex Avery wolf, but his slight lack of leading man charisma seems to work neatly in what is basically a group jeopardy picture. A Cary Grant figure would overbalance the thing.

Just realised that not only does Henry Hull advocate the extermination of all Germans in this movie (an awkward moment — had Hitch started editing footage of concentration camps yet? At least the other characters don’t all rush to voice agreement), but he was also the character in OBJECTIVE, BURMA! who advocated extermination of the Japanese. Is there any race on Earth who haven’t been threatened with extermination by Henry Hull? I guess English werewolves get a free pass.

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Hume Cronyn is lovely, however it should be observed that his cockney accent is among the worst on record. Dick Van Dyke is a regular Meryl Streep by comparison. Since Cronyn was so good in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and since he could undoubtedly adapt to many unlikely characters (see his sadistic gay prison warden in BRUTE FORCE for an eye-popping example), he must have seemed like a safe bet, but there are limits to his versatility. I’m surprised he couldn’t just mimic Hitch’s Leytonestone vowels. It took us ten minutes to decide if he was actually doing an accent, or was just suffering concussion or a head cold.

I was trying to work out what I’d seen Mary Anderson in, then I realised it was TO EACH HIS OWN, which is one of the greatest of all near-unknown Hollywood films of the ’40s, but in that one Mary is up against Olivia deHavilland in full Oscar-worthy rampancy, so she doesn’t have much chance of making an impression. Most of her best scenes also feature a very cute and talented child actor. She’s screwed. Nevertheless, Shadowplay salutes her!

No doubt due to the John Steinbeck influence, there’s plenty of “premature anti-fascism” to enjoy here, with Hodiak as the leftie hero who gets Bankhead’s back up, until she decides she likes a bit of rough, and he wins enough money from Hull to becomes a capitalist in his own right, which is probably a Hitchcock-Swerling addition.

Tallulah Bankhead is Tallulah Bankhead, which is fine by me. “Some of my best friends are women,” indeed!

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Canada Lee, an important figure in American film, gets little to do but cook, although the revelation that he’s an accomplished pickpocket is actually a relief, since it lifts him slightly from the status of token black or Uncle Tom. The most uncomfortable moment is right at the start, when Tallulah asks if Hodiak has seen anything “charcoal” floating in the water, meaning Lee. But that is, at least, in character for her.

Ironic that Hitch apparently never faced any difficulties from HUAC for making this seemingly rather leftwing film, but Lee was, essentially, blacklisted to death.

One thing that’s kind of good about the film, and complicates it out of straight war propaganda, is that all of the characters have good and bad points. Bankhead grumbles, but she sacrifices for the others whenever she has to. Everybody makes stupid mistakes, and not s0 stupid mistakes, in their reaction to the German. And Slezak’s German is given a genuine point of view, nauseating as it often is.

LIFEBOAT cost a lot to make, which disappointed 20th Century Fox: impressed by Hitch’s talk of “cutting in the camera,” Zanuck was expecting this single-set movie to be  quick job. But Hitch refused to shoot in the most seemingly efficient way (Shoot everything looking forward; then everything looking back; then left; then right), which drove Zanuck crazy. But looking at the movie, at the way the characters gradually become more bedraggled and filthy, it’s impossible to see how Hitch could have worked, save scene by scene, as is normal. Years later, Sidney Lumet would shoot 12 ANGRY MEN at high speed by basically filming each actor’s entire part in one go, but that could not be done on LIFEBOAT. As he had with Selznick, Hitch had held out a false promise of super-speed. His reputation for efficiency would only slowly be made in America.

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23 Responses to “All At Sea”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    According to Bill Krohn’s book, Hitchcock wasn’t as efficient as he made out to be. His preference for shooting in sequence for instance often sent many of his films over schedule. And Hitchcock started films as big and expensive as THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH(US), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, TOPAZ without a complete script. And NOTORIOUS was essentially made up as he went along.

    I think LIFEBOAT is part of the great series of interesting Propaganda films – alongside THIS LAND IS MINE(also starring Slezak), HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, THE MORTAL STORM and even SABOTEUR, they all have qualities that have something to offer even today when the Second World War is part of history rather than the daily reality when these films were made.

  2. Krohn’s eager to dispel the myth Hitch created about himself. But on Saboteur he had made a vast movie very cheaply and efficiently. Shooting in sequence makes total sense for Lifeboat, given the slowly altering condition and mood of the characters. Hitch was often willing to sacrifice an actor’s happiness, but here the performances we see would have been impossible unless everybody knew what they’d just done, or else I guess if they’d rehearsed for weeks.

    Topaz got in trouble when the test audience rejected the ending Hitch shot. But you’re quite right with Notorious and the others, which ran into script problems which were still being addressed as they were shot.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    Krohn is dispelling the myth that Hitchcock was an able craftsmen who worked as per the industry confines using suspense genre films for personal expression. The truth was that Hitchcock was a hardworking independent who was also an ace self-promoter and canny producer of his own films. That Hitchcock’s films are artistic by intent and mode of working as in Renoir who loved improvisation rather than an able craftsmen who loved toying with the audience. Hitchcock was quite the subversive.

    The issue with Topaz’s ending occurs only during post-production but production was itself chaotic. Hitchcock summoned Samuel Taylor on set to write the screenplay and again made it up as it went along. The Denmark scene for instance was I believe improvised.

    Hitchcock’s idea of editing involved doing alternate angles of the same scene. Not in the sense of coverage but to basically see which worked best in the editing room. The remarkable thing is how a film like NOTORIOUS looks and moves perfectly on screen. No sense at all that it wasn’t a film planned to the finest detail. That I suppose is Hitch’s real genius.

  4. What’s your source? I’ve learned you’re generally right about these things, but I’ve never read that interpretation of Hitch’s shooting style or the Topaz shoot.

    It’s perfectly possible to create a smooth effect without pre-planning before the day of shooting. It wouldn’t be possible to cover a scene effectively by shooting it from several angles just “to see which worked best.” Any gifted visual director like Hitch has a strong notion of what will work, and I have confidence in the feeling I get that he generally knows when he’s going to cut, whether that decision was made on the day of shooting or months before.

  5. Canada Lee is one of three great black actors from the Forties that stand out for me, the other two being Rex Ingram and Juano Hernandez. Lee’s performance in BODY AND SOUL is perhaps his most memorable, performing alongside another blacklist casualty, of course we mean John Garfield. This film has a great cast overall, now that you’ve brought them to our attention. I would’ve loved to have seen Hitch as a floating corpse, just the idea itself is too funny. Surprised you resisted the urge to mention Tallulah’s penchant for going pantieless during the filming of LIFEBOAT, but that’s not what you’d call a scholarly piece of information.

  6. Is it just me, or does Peter Lorre strangely resemble Paul Newman in that shot of him as the Hairless Mexican?

  7. dcairns Says:

    Hitchcock does actually float on his back in the trailer for Frenzy, before turning to the camera and addressing us in his usual lugubrious manner. Actually, slightly MORE lugubrious than usual, given his age and the fact that he’s lying flat on his back (not actually in the water, though, due to some tricksy filming – you wouldn’t get Hitch freezing and ruining his suit like that).

    The long-shot is a dummy:
    http://www.hitchcockwiki.com/wiki/Hitchcock_Gallery:_Frenzy_(1972)

    I actually DID type up the knickerless Tallulah anecdote, but accidentally deleted it and then just couldn’t bring myself to retype it. We’ll see if somebody’s curious enough to request it.

  8. Hmm, I’ve definitely seen Newman looking up with his eyes like that, and the curve of the upper lip has a little of the Newman sneer…

    Wow.

  9. robert keser Says:

    Drew Casper’s DVD commentary claims that Hitchcock set himself the considerable challenge in LIFEBOAT of never repeating a set-up, despite the physical constraints of the setting. Watching the film recently with an eye for spotting repeated set-ups, I think Casper got it mostly correct; there are inevitably some repeats, especially in crosscutting, but Hitchcock’s creativity in staging inside a limited space looks rather amazing. No doubt this shot-by-shot procedure contributed to slowing down the production and raising Zanuck’s blood pressure!

  10. Soderbergh has followed the same rule on his progressively-less-sufferable Oceans films. Crosscutting seems to be allowed. For a really visually expressive filmmaker like Hitchcock, each shot is making a particular dramatic statement, so to repeat it later would suggest that the drama has stopped progressing. In fact, this was his problem with Steinbeck’s story, he felt it contained sequences which did not develop, complicate and climax as they should: they were “non-scenes.”

    David Mamet, whom I don’t find very expressive at all in terms of shots, nevertheless follows the same no-repeat rule, and I think it’s a very good one. It isn’t necessarily inefficient. Indeed, Hitch builds some sustained shots (of the kind Selznick would often object to) in which he’s able to efficiently cover pages of dialogue.

  11. robert keser Says:

    “For a really visually expressive filmmaker like Hitchcock, each shot is making a particular dramatic statement, so to repeat it later would suggest that the drama has stopped progressing.” That very interesting! I’ve always felt that the real test of a filmmaker is creating unpredictability. The films that seem to me real masterpieces are the ones where I haven’t the slightest idea what the next shot will be. In a way, the story itself isn’t important: it’s a question rather of how it’s presented. If I can predict the next shot, then the drama has stopped progressing for me, and my interest runs down the drain!

  12. It’s kind of the difference between directing and merely covering. There are some fine filmmakers who basically shoot coverage, knowing that the sequence has been captured from every useful angle and that something can be cut together. In those cases, the quality comes more from the performances, the photography, the sound. But you often get that predictability, because mostly each scene is a wide shot and then mediums of each character, and then close-ups.

    In that scenario, you rarely repeat the wide-shot because it really diffuses the dramatic tension. Hitch would find a way to move out to a new wide-shot by moving the actors and/or the camera.

    I think we can see Hitchcock covering the script in early talkie pieces like Juno and the Paycock and especially The Skin Game. And in the latter, he’s trying to cover it in as few angles as possible. But that’s very different from the long-take approach used in his mature work, where he’s still concerned with visually dramatizing each moment.

  13. great stuff here–and a very interesting film

    I used one scene with Canada Lee in a seminar presentation eons ago on the depiction of minority subjectivity in Studio Age Hollywood–this is one of the few movies (the other examples I used were They Won’t Forget and In This Our Life) that features a POV shot from the perspective of a Black character… that makes this a pretty unique film in the Hitchcock canon… and I genuinely believe that this kind of stuff is probably more important than any pat progressive statements emanating from the scripts…

    also pleased to note your love for To Each His Own (which, if you believe the promotional material from 1946, is “one of the three great love stories of all time”)

    Dave

  14. Krohn notes that Hitchcock cut progressive speeches by Lee’s character but allowed actions to carry the way, and the fact that Lee restrains Mary Anderson from taking part in the mob assault on Slezak speaks volumes. And yes, a POV is quite a big deal. I think Topaz is probably the only other Hitch film with a non-white POV character.

    I’m a big Leisen fan. Anderson is actually very good indeed in that film, but she doesn’t stand a chance, poor thing.

  15. I’ve got “City of Angels” — the stage musical, *not* the Silberling film — on the mind of late, something which friend David E. will confirm. In Larry Gelbart’s script for “Angels,” a Latino politce officer gets a “progressive” speech snipped in much the same way that Canada Lee’s “Lifeboat” speeches were snipped. In both cases, I think the fact that Lee’s character and Officer Munoz are non-white individuals of conscience becomes a statement in itself. The fact that they’re there and visible constitutes a rebuke. (“Angels” takes place in a non-specific “late-’40s,” which ain’t the same as the middle of WW2, but the psychology is much the same.)

  16. Actions speak louder than words, as Hitch was well aware.

    Having said that, Lee’s best dialogue moment is when he’s eventually asked his opinion about who should be captain. “I get a vote too?”

    Plutocrat Henry Hull is shocked at this cynicism: “Why, certainly!”

  17. Just finished watching Shadow of a Doubt again on TCM. Fascinating links to Psycho. The family home — especially the stariway — is quite like the Bates mansion. The difference is it’s surrounded by other homes in a “typical” neighborhood — not standing all by itself in the middle of nowhere.

    When Uncle Charlie comes to town he opens a bank account, depositing (wait for it ) 40 Thousand Dollars.

  18. The magic sum!

    As with Psycho, by the end of the movie, the money is entirely forgotten about.

  19. William Bendix is a extremely distant cousin of Communist Manifesto Author Karl Heinrich Marx!

  20. And yet it’s John Hodiak who gets to play the leftie in this one! Bill must’ve felt cheated.

  21. Further to your musing that the floating playing cards may be alluding to Hitch’s cameo in Shadow of a Doubt, I couldn’t help seeing a call out to Suspicion in Heather Angel’s suicidal young mother. She, of course, played the maid in that film. In the source novel, Johnny fathers an illegitimate child with her (all excised in the film but left to the rather affectionate subtext between the two). Now here she is bringing her baby to meet his father. And, the baby is called Johnny! In fact, her whole subplot could be seen as some weird future for Joan Fontaine’s character and her constantly referring to Cary Grant’s Johnny as a child.

    I know, this is over the top, but just the way one’s mind starts working when one does a Hitchcock Year.

  22. Great thoughts! And I’m glad it’s affecting you the same way! A year of Hitchcock can be quite intense.

  23. True fact: Canadians and Americans were officially banned from doing doing Cockney accents after this film was released.

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