d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 96 mins.
Note: The following review discusses significant plot elements.
Between 1940 and 1944, Alfred Hitchcock – like many loyal Hollywood studio men – spent approximately half his time making films that contributed to the effort behind World War II. The war was either featured prominently as the backdrop (Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur) or was conspicuously absent altogether (none of the young men in Shadow of a Doubt seem to be veterans or bound for military service). The war, while devastating, was good fodder for classical Hollywood cinema: clear good guys, clear bad guys, the opportunity to entertain on the home-front while subtly including stay-strong, stay-vigil propaganda to those making sacrifices.
Outside two explicitly propagandistic shorts he made in England during that time, the film with the greatest connection to the war was Lifeboat, a 1944 thriller set entirely in the title device, where American and British characters struggle to stay alive after their ship is sunk by a German submarine. The survivors are a microcosm of Allied life: a sassy and savvy journalist (Tallulah Bankhead), a brawny and furious crewman (John Hodiak) and a calm, standard-protocol crewman (Hume Cronyn), as well an industrialist, a nurse, a steward, and a mother with her baby. When they bring one more person aboard, they realize he (Walter Slezak) is a German from the attacking U-boat. After a debate that resembles an afternoon discussion in foreign policy, they let him stay so his maritime skills can help them survive – although their nervousness never subsides.
Regardless of its plot and thematic success (which is certainly up for debate), Lifeboat is one of Hitchcock's most superior technical achievements. At only forty-feet long, the lifeboat – set in a water tank on the Twentieth Century–Fox lot – is reportedly the smallest set ever used for a feature film. But it works more than you might imagine. Hitchcock, methodical planner that he was, worked along with cinematographer Glen MacWilliams to constructed an elaborate series of alternating and rotating shots, so that the film wouldn't become repetitive in its visuals. For their efforts, MacWilliams and Hitchcock both received Oscar nominations. (This would be the second of five the director would not win.)
Hitchcock had been playing musical chairs in Hollywood since his arrival: first at Selznick International, then United Artists, RKO, Universal, and now Twentieth Century–Fox under Darryl Zanuck. Inspired by his successful collaboration with Thornton Wilder on Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock sought to work again with a leading American author on the Lifeboat screenplay. His first choice, Ernest Hemingway, replied via telegram: "THANK HITCHCOCK FOR ASKING ME STOP PERHAPS WE CAN WORK TOGETHER ANOTHER TIME BEST REGARDS." The director's next choice, John Steinbeck, had never worked with Hollywood but took the assignment of crafting Lifeboat as a work of prose that would then be adapted into a screenplay. The collaboration wasn't as successful as the director's with Wilder, and although the studio was able to tout Steinbeck's name on the film, Hitchcock and screenwriter Jo Swerling changed many elements from the Steinbeck novella. (Lots of legal action followed, too bureaucratic to discuss here, but suffice it to say all parties involved were quite bitchy.)
In its time Lifeboat was derided for its latent sympathy to Willie, the German U-boat captain, but today it's derided for the categorically opposite reason, as an overtly pro-American piece of propaganda. Somehow I imagine the critical inconsistencies must be amusing Hitchcock in the afterlife. Ironically, aren't both views correct in their own way? After all, we're talking about Hitchcock here, the director who loved to turn convention on its head and co-mingle unlike elements to create not only causal suspense but thematic suspense. Lifeboat is simultaneously kind and cruel to both the Nazi and the Allies, that sort of emphasis on the intellectual gray the director did so well in his previous film, Shadow of a Doubt. Willie isn't presented as an oafish Nazi, but rather one who is cunning and manipulative and, for most of the film, successful in those acts. The Americans, our ostensible heroes, come from different socio-economic backgrounds and feud with each other openly, and it's not only their at-sea situation that causes discomfort in the viewer but the misguided and misappropriated anger that skims over a vital piece of the puzzle. And it's because of this, as well as its clockwork tension, that I find Lifeboat to be one of Hitchcock's most complex war-time thrillers, stocked with a strong cast and the director's trademark filmmaking veneer.
18 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 96 mins.