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?
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.
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.
“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?
Barbara Morton — Pat Hitchcock’s character in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN?
The Bald Mexican — Peter Lorre in SECRET AGENT?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.