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.