Skip to main content

We're not like you! You're made of iron, we're just flesh and blood! Hungry and thirsty flesh and blood!

Lifeboat 
(1944)

Like Rope, this wartime Hitchcock effort sees the director thriving on the technical challenge of basing a film around a single location. The script from John Steinbeck maintains the character drama throughout, throwing in battles with the elements and thwarted plans to reach safe harbour. The characters need to be sufficiently compelling as the suspense element is limited by the scenario. Hitchcock was keen to do his patriotic duty during WWII, so it's ironic that some critics suggested the film was pro-Nazi in presenting a German character who was several steps ahead of his fellow survivors; the director's intention was for the lifeboat's occupants to represent the allies in a microcosm, and only by uniting could they defeat the more prepared and resilient enemy.

Tallulah Bankhead makes the most of the ostensible lead (certainly the only big name in the cast), a smart-mouthed, lusty photo-journalist. The first time we see her she is the sole occupant of the titular survival vessel, sat incongruously in her mink coat smoking a cigarette. She is in no doubt of her importance. Bankhead didn't go in for underwear; Hitchcock's reaction was "I don't know if this is a matter for the costume department, makeup, or hairdressing").

Of the rest of the cast the most variable is Hume Cronyn. His "English" accent must be one of the worst ever; it's hard to get past that to consider whether his performance is any good or not.  Water Slezak's German, Willy, is the only actor who can match Bankhead for screen presence. Mary Anderson, a Fox contract-player, is a bit of a babe and seems an unlikely match for Cronyn (stressful environments and all that, I guess). William Bendix, John Hodiak, Canada Lee and Henry Hull are all solid.

Lee's African American character Joe is introduced with the cry of "Hey, Charcoal!" from Bankhead, making you wonder if the treatment of the character can only get worse from there. But for the most part he's written with more awareness than might have been expected for a film of this period. While he's introduced with a negative signifier (he was once a pickpocket), this skill proves vital as events unfold. At one point he expresses surprise that he would be asked for his vote on what to do, and later the other characters further betray their ignorance by showing their surprise at the photo of his wife and children.

The film is so technically accomplished that it smooths over some of the less credible aspects of the script. Most obvious is the amputation of a leg on a small boat in the middle of a storm with only a bottle of brandy as anaesthetic (I hardly think that when the victim comes round he will claim to feel "much better"). Some of Willy's actions probably don't stand much scrutiny in retrospect either (for someone with such skills of manipulation and coersion he makes several very sloppy blunders). At other times the writing is highly insightful; Bankhead is introduced seeing the war as little more than an entertainment that she can make capital from. The film features Hitchcock's favourite of his cameos; it's certainly his most inventive (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it).

SPOILERS:

The climax is interesting in terms of the possible readings one could take away. At first glance, the shaking of heads at the frightened young German who expected them to kill him (he is rescued but then pulls a gun on them) seems to be a somewhat glib ascribing of innate moral superiority to the Allies. But we have to consider also that those uttering this sentiment have just lynched the nefarious German who was plotting their demise/surrender. And Hitchcock filmed them doing this in a fairly unequivocally disdainful eye (as he said to Truffaut, "they're like a pack of dogs"). Nevertheless, while it would have been astonishing to arrive at any other point, I couldn't help but be disappointed that Willy is revealed to be so single-mindedly villainous beneath his charm and manipulation. Walter Slezak makes the character immensely charismatic in his level-headedness while all around are falling to pieces. A more interesting and less polarised approach might have been more satisfying (after all the previous year had brought the amazingly even-handed and insightful The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). But I was also slightly disappointed for the more prosaic reason that the German being the villain was obvious, and you want Hitchcock to surprise you. But in Lifeboat, the surprise is one telegraphed by the title and poster; the director will be imposing severely restrictive elements upon himself and the pleasure for the viewer is in seeing how he is able to sustain this. 





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.