I Can Out-Jive the Rest of Those Hep-Cats Even with a Bum Gam: Alfred Hitchcock – “Lifeboat”

Note: This post is part of the “Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon” hosted by Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.

Even if you’re not a fan of the director, one should still give him credit for trying to do things a little differently. In that respect, and many others, Alfred succeeds swimmingly with this tale of several disparate characters stranded in a lifeboat floating about in a wartime sea. The story and Hitchcock’s filming techniques result in all of the action taking place in an area smaller than most living rooms (and some bathrooms), thus mashing together various societal stereotypes and forcing them to deal with one another. The film also stars Tallulah Bankhead, so even if you don’t care about anything I’ve babbled up to this point, you should watch just for Tallulah alone. She’s a hoot, sometimes unintentionally so.

Rather than risk crossing the boredom-line or letting slip with potential spoilers, I thought it best to condense the plot as such: Eight survivors of a ship that has rudely sunk before reaching their destination eventually clamor aboard a lifeboat. Shortly after introductions and social standings have been conveyed, they rescue a survivor of the very German U-boat which sank their own ship before succumbing to the murky depths as well. This man may have had something to do with everyone else being improperly attired for dinner on the Lido deck that no longer exists. Oh, and all those bodies floating around us in the water. That, too. Discussions ensue.

To reveal much more of the story arc ruins the movie. This is Hitchcock working with a very limited set. The dialogue is the plot, with plenty of twists and reveals and, most shocking to me considering the situation, the fact that four of the nine characters end up in a show-mance instead of worrying about other things, like survival. And despite my light tone, the twists and reveals are somewhat startling, especially for a movie released in 1944. Then again, the movie is based on a story by John Steinbeck, a man not known for his frivolity. (He eventually fought to keep his name off the movie, due to the racist and classist elements that Alma Hitchcock (wifey) and other writers subsequently injected into the script. I support his non-support, as those elements are rather evident.)

Therefore, limited as we are with actual plot details, the rest of our discussion will focus on the things I can reveal, hopefully in a manner that will encourage you to see the movie. Yes, it’s very melodramatic in some parts (Tallulah, honey, did the codeine wear off in that scene?) and some bits come across as rather hokey, but so do a lot of things that are 70-plus years old. (No offense to my senior friends, big hugs.) Still and all, viewing the movie now is rewarding if you are interested in watching a director take chances that most were not taking at that time.

To make things interesting, we’ll use bits of dialogue from the movie as talking points about the characters, even though the particular quotes might not have anything to do with the vague statements I’m trying to make. Here we go. (Fair warning: Despite trying to be intentionally cryptic, I do reveal one thing. But it’s a minor plot point. Proceed at your discretion.)

“Just because she likes to dance and have a good time.”

The first character we meet is Constance Porter (Tallulah), perched all alone in the signature lifeboat. Her only concern at the moment is a run in her stockings, a wretched thing to deal with, especially with all that clatter from the ship sinking and James Cameron first trying out his “I’m the king of the world!” speech. As the story progresses, we learn that she was very invested in filming the tragedy with her fancy camera (“I’m a famous reporter!”) instead of rescuing the various chambermaids and trust-fund heirs that are floating past.

Connie-Lulah has some serious self-love issues. She does have moments of redemption as we progress, but we’ve got a pretty big mountain to climb, especially when she keeps backsliding.

“Who elected you skipper?”

Cue the entrance of Kovac (John Hodiak). He worked in the engine room that no longer is, so naturally he has to be limited in education and extremely narrow-minded. To enhance the stereotype, his chest and arms are covered in tattoos, which we can plainly see because he keeps taking off his shirt for no apparent reason. Not that I minded this disregard for couture. There is one scene where Connie-Lulah is draped across his lap like a goddess (long story) and Kodiak looks swarthy and menacing in that renegade manner that will keep the romance-novel industry in business for centuries. That scene alone was worth his salary, even though his character would probably help build that border wall that Trump keeps trumping about.

“I don’t understand any of it!”

Then we have Nurse Alice, played by Mary Anderson. She’s really sweet and all, with this being her first trip out of the country. (Technically, she hasn’t made it to her destination yet, so the “out” part doesn’t really apply. And after this experience, I’m sure she’s not interested in joining any frequent-flier programs. There’s a passport that will never be cracked open again.) Naturally, when someone is super sweet, you should keep your eye on them…

“She’s got a heart as big as her head.”

And now we turn our eyes on Gus Smith (William Bendix), who did something or other on the ship before the Big Bang. He’s no longer doing it, natch, but he is talking about his gal back home. A lot. More than we care to hear. Still, he took a piece of shrapnel in his leg, a development that becomes complicated, so we have to give him some leeway. Plus, he’s dealing with perhaps the most unfortunate hairdo to ever appear on the silver screen. His backstory is eventually touching, but you keep looking at the hair, unless Connie-Lulah jumps in front of the camera like she is prone to do.

“If we only had some bait.”

Enter, dripping from the sea, Walter Slezak as Willi from the U-boat (full character name withheld due to non-disclosure agreements). We don’t know what to think of him for some time, which increases the intensity as things unfold. (Hitchcock does try to give us some clues about his true nature, but let’s just say that I’m not a Boy Scout (the gay thing) and therefore I’m not as savvy with a compass as Hitch expected me to be. We’ll leave it at that.) Willi likes to sing as he rows the boat, a rather pleasant diversion when one can’t get a satellite TV signal, but how much trust can you place in somebody who knows show tunes?

“It’s a personal problem.”

Henry Hull plays Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse, Jr (are you already smelling what’s cooking, based on that name?), a wealthy society type that normally runs around with the likes of Connie-Lulah. Despite this, he actually seems admirable for much of the movie, until the melodrama hit a high point (during a poker game, no less) that is so out of nowhere that everything he does after that is questionable. And he has a fetish for cigars that would make Sigmund Freud claw out of his grave and start taking notes.

“That’s a bit awkward.”

Heather Angel plays Mrs. Higley. You might not want to get too attached to her, despite her few emotional scenes. (Okay, fine, bit of a spoiler, but really, she’s gone before you can even find your seat in the movie theater and the butter hasn’t yet congealed on your enormously-expensive bucket of popcorn.) I think it’s fair to say that Mrs. Higley’s departure might have inspired Hitchcock in one of his future projects, an experiment eventually known as the movie “Rope”.

“Ye gods and little fishes.”

Next up we have Hume Cronyn as Stanley “Sparks” Garrett. (It’s entirely possible that I missed an important bit of dialogue, but I never figured out the origination behind “Sparks”. I’m a little slow sometimes. Just ask… well, anyone that knows me.) Stanley is a likeable character, for the most part (everyone has a degree of shadiness in the Hitchcock oeuvre), but every time he appeared on screen all I could focus on was “wow, Hume sure looks young and supple in this movie”. I suppose this makes me shallow, but I had to come up with some angle that didn’t reveal any plot elements, and this is the path I chose. (And I can see why Jessica Tandy found him quite fetching for half a century.)

“We still got a motor.”

Our final cast member is Canada Lee as Joe Spencer. This is where some of the criticism sparked when the movie was first released. There is definitely a racial stereotype happening here, as Canada/Joe is black and some of the scripted dialogue and actions play into this. At the same time, elements of John Steinbeck’s original story survive. (Joe does not participate in a certain mob-rule segment, and he’s the only one to step forward when courage is needed.) Still, it’s sad to see how easily racism was tossed about in Hollywood not that long ago, especially when Connie-Lulah calls Joe “Charcoal” because she can’t remember his name.

Still a long way to go, my friends.

But I don’t want to end on a negative note, as the movie really is worth a look, all things considered. Since his heyday, many subsequent directors have stolen Hitchcock ideas to the point where it’s hard for newer viewers to appreciate his older work, since they think they’ve seen it all before. But really, Hitch broke ground in a number of ways. If you put it in the right perspective, and (temporarily) ignore the trappings of the time, “Lifeboat” is an intriguing perspective on how human decency is a shifting landscape.



24 replies »

  1. Hi Brian. Thanks so much for taking part. This film really makes you feel as though you are right there with them. It has a claustrophobic feel because of the confined space which adds to the suspense. Quite an underrated film from Hitch I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Maddy. I really enjoyed doing this and I will happily participate if you do another one. (I should apologize, though, for not being very supportive on your site during the actual blogathon. We had friends come in for the weekend at the last minute and I really didn’t have time to keep on top of my blog duties. But I will jump in there and do what I can soon, albeit belatedly.) And yes, “Lifeboat” is underrated, especially be folks who first watched it well after it was released. Many of the elements Hitch first used in this movie are now so commonplace that someone watching it after the fact doesn’t realize how fresh and original it really was…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Brian. Oh don’t worry about that at all. Real life always comes before blogging! You’re right he did so many original things, not only here but across all his films.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My nickname for several years was Tallulah … you can make up your own mind 😉 Many years later I christened my labrador puppy Tallulah. I thought I was being ironic – no-one got the joke. Enough of me (really, after therapy, I am less Tallulah than before) … this is pure gold. I love Hitchcock and am mercifully old enough to understand exactly what he brought to the table that has since been pilfered often brilliantly by newer directors. And this film is a gem of it’s time even including the extremely un politically correct elements because they are of their time and we mustn’t forget how recent that time was and how far we have come. We really mustn’t. Steinbeck though was to be entirely forgiven for denouncing his input (like, original book input) … I would too. I can dream. So chapeau to you … really I loved every word of this and am inspired to find said movie and watch it all again and for probably the first time in 30 years (that era having been the Tallulah Period in my life).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Former Tallulah,

      Every one of your comments always gives me another dot of color to add the pointillist portrait I have of you in my mind. But this particular entry gave me almost an entire palette of new hues. Thank you. (The Tallulah angle alone is worth hours of wine-enhanced discussion.) You also always thrill me with your honest appreciation for my random diddling with letters. The joy of chatting with someone who gets you is one of the finer things…

      Former Myrna Loy


  3. The film was more controversial at the time for the portrayal of the Germans. The German is the most competent among the survivors and a natural leader. The allied characters look divided and not entirely sympathetic. The treatment of race seem pretty normal to me for a 1940s film. Bankhead’s character is not all that pleasant and the way she refers to Canada Lee may not be unrealistic for the time.

    “(It’s entirely possible that I missed an important bit of dialogue, but I never figured out the origination behind “Sparks”.”

    Radio operator?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I agree with your comments. It’s perhaps unfair that I didn’t do more “counter-points” in this bit, but I didn’t want to get too bogged down in theory in a piece that is meant to be mostly lighthearted. But if you’ll allow me to dig deep briefly on one point, I think the depictions of the German and the Allied characters is actually more honest, in the context of the War at that point, than Americans wanted it to be. Hitch wasn’t making a propaganda piece, he was doing a character study, and that inspired some of the critics to cry foul…

      Thank you for taking the time to drop by and leave a comment!


  4. I’ll have to do some earnest searching of Netflix and Amazon and find this film. It sounds rather like the “Twelve Angry Men” with Jack Lemmon (in a very serious role), I simply loved it. Study in human nature and all that..which “Lifeboat” just might be. Hmm. Thanks for the recommend and salient review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really a good movie, as long as you keep in mind the time period in which it was made (melodrama! over-acting! movie stars!) and just watch it for the story and the film-making…


  5. Tallulah Bankhead was one of my uncle’s favorite actresses. He liked her so much that he decided to name one of his daughters after her. Trouble was, he was either drunk or couldn’t spell her name and it came out Tula. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really liked Tallulah. She was good on screen (as long as the role was right, I should say), but her personal life was absolutely fascinating. Now, as for bungled names of offspring, well, let’s just say that I have a lot of questionable branches in my own family tree… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm. By the way you started your comment, it sounds like we may have discussed this movie before and you didn’t care for it at the time. Perhaps I’m reading to much into that. I do admit that there are some creaky bits in the movie, but overall it’s rather satisfying. As for John, well, the scene I mentioned where he exudes swarthiness whilst Tallulah drapes herself across his man section? I could have easily tossed Lulah overboard (with no lingering guilt whatsoever) and taken her place. And the movie would have had a very different ending… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • I believe I expressed surprise on the post where you announced your selection, thinking the movie not worthy of a review. But maybe it was only in my head. Geez, Brian, can’t you read my mind by now?
        And yes, I’m totally seeing you draped over John’s lap. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a fascinating film which I need to see again. It’s incredible to think about all the drama that goes on in that one lifeboat – and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s a fascinating paradox for the characters to be in such a claustrophobic environment on that endless ocean.

    So glad you didn’t reveal any spoilers. It’s been some time since I’ve seen this, and I forget how it ends. Will be looking forward to watching this again with fresh eyes.

    P.S. As you likely know, Hume Cronyn has some pretty juicy stories about Ms Bankhead on the set that he included in his memoirs,…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is a fascinating film, both in the over-arching aspects of film-making and story-tell, but just as much in what it reveals about a certain moment in cultural time. This would never be made by a major studio today. It is far too dialogue-heavy, and only the independent companies would green-light it, a situation that annoys me to no end.

      Thanks for dropping by! And now I’m off to research Hume’s juicy stories, because I didn’t know about them, but I’m about to find out… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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