Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lifeboat



**** / *****
This was only the second time (just hard for me to believe this being such a Hitchcock mark) I have seen Lifeboat (1944), and startling me were certain significant shots considering the limited confines of a boat. Getting creative was Hitchcock, composing individual setpieces between members of the cast, splitting his time with characters (and their conversations) but also never forgetting to emphasize the claustrophobic nature of the boat as bodies often stumble over each other, water from crashing waves brought about by weather/atmospheric change, the vastness of the ocean always a nuisance and far-reaching menace. A great cast obviously helps Hitchcock and his masterful abilities to fully establish their faces (and ultimately their decisions) are eye-popping. I think Lifeboat is indeed a case study in how to adopt this ingenious energy within a small parcel, to never allow any sense of static inactivity despite the obvious lingering conditions imposed on those in the boat where freedom was defined by finding the tiny unoccupied spot available to you. Members of a ship bombed by the Nazis during wartime swim to the lifeboat occupied by “correspondent” Tallulah Bankhead, complete in mink coat and shiny bracelet, delighting in the camera footage taken from this voyage. Arriving first is Hodiak, already at odds with Bankhead over losing her camera after knocking it into the water. Arriving also are such officers as William Bendix (with the gangrene-leg amputation and Nazi sub captain dispatching, a victim of mental deterioration, starvation-caused delusional tendencies, and eventually drowning), and Hume Cronyn (always involved in trying to help steer the ship in the right direction, considerably important in challenging a course laid in by a questionable human compass). Henry Hull is the millionaire industrialist who happened to be on this trip to Spain for financial reasons, soon dismissed from leadership duties when attempting to wrangle those onboard into proper efficiency, playing on each person’s greatest strengths. Mary Anderson, as the nurse, comes in quite handy, indeed a conveniently arriving medical mind onboard a boat in dire need of her. Canada Lee swims a mother and her dead baby to the boat, mentioned by many critics of the film’s time as a “token black character”. I found Lee far more than just that, however. In fact I found Lee’s presence quite impressive, particularly during the 23rd Psalm when the baby was “buried at sea” in the foreground while Bankhead is slightly at a distance turning her head to him after Hull forgets part of the chapter in the Bible. Bankhead’s star power is incredible; I see why Hitchcock wanted her. Yes, she accompanies a lot of her dialogue with “Daaaling”, but I thought she really could get points across without even saying words. Her angst and sexual tension with Hodiak is quite a continuous thread throughout the film that Hitchcock refuses (and rightfully so) to abandon. Her hair down, after the hairy boat wave assault when Hodiak kisses her, looking up at him in a quiet moment of reflection (the two realize they are from the same poor section of Chicago) and admittance of attraction is one of my favorite scenes in the film. I also liked how Bankhead approaches the scene involving Bendix when the German sub captain taken aboard (Slezak) communicates to her in his language that the leg will need to come off…and conversation about Rose, the dancer, needs to be diffused in order to hopefully save Bendix, who seems unwilling to give up the leg in favor of his life because losing it would be the equivalent of losing his girl back home. Bankhead’s running line of being friends with different groups is also a nice accompaniment to her addressing different folks on the boat. Inclusion of being a “friend to…” continues to serve as a “character of progress”, although I did read Bankhead herself chewed into Slezak onset. That Hitchcock was willing to allow some sort of positive approach to “Axis” through the treatment of Slezak’s Nazi, at the time a bone of contention with those critical of such a move, I think is undercut by how the camera shoots his deception (the compass, his face hidden away from others when they are concerned with other matters, the way he uses his words and deeds to buy himself some time) and eventually exposes him for the true villain that he is. Slezack’s sub captain was putting on a performance, all the while rowing the boat (sipping water and taking pills to keep him strong and active), taking charge, while the others just decided that was for the best. This is even addressed by Bankhead at the end, when she lays into them with a diatribe about just giving up because their “ersatz superhuman” was no longer the motor of the boat. So I call bully on that nonsense about Hitchcock painting the Nazis as positive in any way. It was all a hatched plan nearly successful if sweat hadn’t beaded on Slezack’s forehead and Bendix hadn’t been hurled overboard to die. The mob on the attack is shot with backs of those involved in Slezack’s beating and dumping over the edge to us, but the camera is held on them, fixed, so that we see it all in ugly detail. It is a reminder that in wartime violence and reacting with rage at the enemy can produce results that often wouldn’t be committed by “civilized people”. Slezack killed one of their own, steering them into the direction benefiting him, and so they react in revenge. Although this can be supported, nonetheless Hitchcock’s camera doesn’t fail to capture it as it transpires. The romances that build make sense, especially Anderson and Cronyn, being together on the ocean for a lengthy time relationships are bound to evolve, some into love. The Allied forces saving the day before the Axis could capture our heroes is a crowd-pleasing moment that might very well have been updated differently, but Hitchcock gave folks watching the happy ending…complete with taking onboard a second German officer.






 

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