Friday, July 8, 2016

Lifeboat (1944)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock presents a bold motion picture set within a limited location in the motion picture Lifeboat. Based on an original story by famed American writer John Steinbeck this feature film marked the return of actress Tallulah Bankhead to the silver screen in over a decade. On paper this World War II suspense motion picture was a commercial success that came generous amount of controversy for its day, but with time came to be considered one of Hitchcock’s most underrated works in his career.

Lifeboat is thriller/drama about group of survivors from a German U-boat attack and their struggle to endure when rescuing a surviving crewman from the U-boat. Opening on the immediate aftermath of the U-boat attack that sank a passenger ship a group of strangers assemble aboard a lone lifeboat in the middle of the North Atlantic. Coming from all walks of life, including a snobbish columnist (Tallulah Bankhead), a wounded American soldier (William Bendix), a wealthy industrialist (Henry Hull), a crewman from the engine room (Hume Cronyn), and a mother (Heather Angel) holding desperately to her dead infant, each individual battles the physical and emotion strife of the experience they are in. When they pull out of the water a survivor the German U-boat (Walter Slezak) debates arise as to whether they should save him or let him die in the sea while they ponder their own survival. At first appearing to helpful the German in due course reveals to have negative intentions on survivors, driving the lifeboat towards danger. Ultimately the survivors overpower the German and throw him into the ocean in vengeance for what he had put them through. The film concludes with the lifeboat taking on yet another German, a survivor an allied air attack, leaving us with a message of who can be trusted in this situation in this similar situation.

This film contains of great deal of thought in its 96 minute package. The story is tight and compact, but deep and expansive. It is complicated, but at the same time over simplified. It makes the audience think while at the same time can be very frustrating. It is a product of a world dominated by war, dreamt within the creative spark of John Steinbeck and interpreted by the master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. The film has an internal struggle of what it wants to be and say while it remains a remarkable picture with ingenious storytelling. Therefore depending on the generation in which this was watched changed who an audience viewed this film Removed from the time of World War II the picture has quietly flourish in the background of the director’s resume, becoming somewhat of a hidden gem in his career’s work.

The genesis of the picture comes with Alfred Hitchcock, who at the time was on loan to 20th Century Fox, approaching John Steinbeck with an idea for a wartime drama on a lifeboat. Steinbeck penned the tale with intentions of publishing it as a novel at the same time of the potential film’s production. However with Alfred Hitchcock being the master of his own storytelling, he took the story structure put in place by Steinbeck and formed it to what he thought was best. The result was a motion picture that Steinbeck found shared a very different sentiment than what he original intended. The novelization would never come to pass as Steinbeck’s publishers found the story too weak. Furthermore Steinbeck upset by the changes Hitchcock made to his original story, requesting the removal of his name from the credits. Of course, the additional of John Steinbeck’s name being attached to the film gave the picture an added bit of box office attraction and Fox kept the credit in place despite the behest of the author.

Another significant coo for the picture was the return of actress Tallulah Bankhead to the big screen after an eleven year hiatus from Hollywood. A star of the early 1930s Bankhead left Hollywood following 1933 finding the motion picture process too dull and slow for her liking, favoring the instant gratification and thrill of the stage in both London and Broadway. Now at 42 Bankhead joins a wonderful ensemble cast portraying the Connie, a globe-trotting columnist eager to parlay even this terrible life threatening situation into a profitable story. Her performance would garner herself great praise, the highest coming from New York film critics who awarded her a Best Actress award from her return work in the film.

Bankhead’ss performance is one of many that helped make this motion picture work so well. The lovable William Bendix plays a wounded soldier whose desperate nature leads to his own demise. Walter Slezak portrays the main antagonist, the salvaged U-boat crewman who is revealed to be the captain of the Nazi vessel and attempts to take advantage of the survivors’ situation. Heather Angels performance is tragically haunting as the mother in hysterics clinging to her lifeless baby before taking her own life in the quiet of the night. Other noteworthy appearances are made by Henry Hull, Mary Anderson, and John Hodiak, each having great acting careers in their own right.

The  major source of great creativity of this film is that the entirety of the story takes places within the tight confines of a lifeboat. As a notorious stickler for detail Alfred Hitchcock would precisely storyboard his feature, and staged shots with the aid of small lifeboat model as a point of reference. The result is a wonderfully creative use of camera, special effects, and masterful acting to create the feeling this these people were lost at sea in very confined quarters to each other, while keeping the story moving with interest and energy. His camera moves throughout the space, flowing past, in, through, and over various conversations and plot points. Hitchcock uses the minimized space to his advantage to manifests his brilliant inventiveness as a filmmaker.

A total of four boats were constructed for the production. The first was simply used as a set to rehearse from. Another was used on a stage to allow for close-ups, while a third was utilizes for longer shots, seen in the more creative camera moves using a soundstage and backgrounds and/or rear projection. The forth was obviously that of the extensively water based vessel on the Fox lot’s massive water tank. Hitchcock would not allow his actors much in the way of comfort as he used many water effects to simulate the wilds of the high seas, many times dousing his cast in massive amounts of water. This did effectively make the lifeboat setting believable as well as many within its cast and even the crew ill. Hours of production were lost as the various casts members were made ill by sitting in a consistent state of wetness in rather cold temperatures. William Bendix, in fact, was a replacement actor for Murray Alper as Alper fell ill in the middle of production. Similar conditions led to the replacement of the movie’s cinematographer to the production woes that made it run beyond its schedule and over budget.

Hitchcock's cameo is featured with a newspaper ad.
An Alfred Hitchcock picture would not be complete without the usual appearance of the famed director within the film. Due to the minimalistic setting and Hitchcock not portraying a survivor of any kind he had to be creative with how his famous vestige would find its way into the movie. Originally it was thought he would play a corpse that would float by somewhere during the movie, but Hitchcock ditched that idea for something a bit more creative. Having recently lost a large amount of weight Hitchcock’s rotund image appears in a weight loss drug ad as both the before and after model on a newspaper being read by William Bendix. This visual game the filmmaker was playing with the audience would be a thrilling find within the picture for Hitchcock fans of the day. However, this appreance within a drug add caused a minor stir as some audiences member would write into the studio to find information of this fake miracle drug ad hoping it was a real product on the market.

Lifeboat was release during the heart of World War II and performed as well as any Hitchcock film could have hoped during this economic time at the box office. However film and filmmaker took many tongue lashings due to the sympathetic nature in which the Nazi antagonist was treated. In the middle of the war Americans had little to no soft spots for their enemies and critic and audiences alike voiced their opinion of the creative choices in this picture. However the film received many praises at the same time for its beauty and talented acting. However Fox was none to please with the initial lash back cutting advertising support rather early for the feature. Hitchcock was still set to produce a second picture under his deal with Fox, but would never happen with the studio’s general negative feeling to the filmmaker in this experience.

Lifeboat would fade quickly into the background of Alfred Hitchcock pictures with the coming years as it would eventually be overshadowed. With the passage of time and generations of classic film aficionados Lifeboat has found a somewhat of a cult following as one of the most overlook of the filmmakers career being rediscovered following the results of WWII. The minimalism, creativity, and acting shines bright as the clouds of World War II have faded into history. Now Lifeboat sits with contemporary works presenting questions of what good and evil are and asking people with compassion whether they are enemies or not. Perhaps the film was before its time, but it remains a yet another wonderful work of a master filmmaker whose use of suspense keeps us thinking and on the edge of our seats.

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