Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)

A small dinghy certainly isn’t the type of single locale you’d expect from a Hitchcock movie, and in that regard it’s a lot like Rope, which took place solely in an apartment.  But where Lifeboat succeeds and where Rope fails, I think, is its status as character study.  Rope is clearly an exercise in style, with Hitchcock trying to have as much fun as possible in pure experimentation with the continuous takes, and to that effect, realistic characters were sacrificed in favor of, among others, an absolutely lifeless Jimmy Stewart and an obnoxiously sarcastic girlfriend that I wish was the film’s strangling victim. As a result, what we were left with was a film that was somewhat impressive in its technical experimentation, but consequently uneven stylistically and even more uneven with a story and characters that you get the feeling were disregarded for style.

Lifeboat certainly has many of the trademarks of a great Hitchcock film: the camera focusing exactly on what Hitch wants you to see (a vital clue, something known to us but not the characters, etc.), an odd yet memorable assortment of shifty characters, and especially a pitch-perfect degree of timing, so that the set-up to a suspenseful series of events takes precedent over the outcome.  Never is this more obvious than during the leg amputation scene: we never see the operation itself, but rather the survivors hovering over the lovable and drunk Gus as the weather and sea get more and more choppy.  This is Hitchcock at his suspenseful finest.    That intangible talent of Hitchcock’s for focusing on exactly what needs to be focused on at a given time abounds,  such as a concealed bottle of water against the backdrop of thirsty and exhausted faces.  What I was really concentrating on, though, wasn’t an emphasis on things or events, but on people: something I haven’t concentrated on nearly as hard in other Hitchcock films, save maybe for Vertigo and Strangers on a Train.  Of course, most if not all of our cast of characters aboard the boat are (or at least start out as) stock character types and kind of shallow and “fake” (a vice which might’ve been Hitchcock’s only flaw on a consistent basis), and a patched on-feeling happy ending certainly doesn’t help matters (an ending like that works in grand romps like North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much, but not here) in a story about the inner darkness and banal instincts of man. 

Despite that, though, I couldn’t help but concentrate my focus on how most of the characters experienced at least a degree of change as the story went along, to the point that they prove to be far from who we initially perceive them to be (kudos should go to John Steinbeck for that, I’m sure).  Tallulah Bankhead’s reporter Constance Porter, for instance, is initially perceived by us as a rich, snobby bitch based on her obsession with filling the boat with as many personal possessions (mink coat notwithstanding) as possible, only to later show her romantic, nearly poetic mindset in convincing Gus to lose the leg instead of losing hope and letting himself die, only later still showing perhaps even more true colors as a sex-starved, still materialistic vamp.  The everyman Kovac, initially the ideal on-screen macho hero, becomes a xenophobic asshole who wants to run everything himself, eventually becoming the voice of reason and even a piece of comic relief in his poker games with the wealthy Ritt.  Joe, the black cook, is initially just that: a black cook, sticking to the background with no real identity, right on track with the state of minorities on the screen in the 1940s, only to recite a prayer, taking up half the screen in a brilliant shot that I pasted here, so that he proves to be one of the most silent and forlorn yet introspective people on the boat. 

All of these characters transform in some way based on how they’re presented to us for sure, but what I was most impressed with was Hitchcock’s way of constantly changing our perception of the Nazi U-boat captain.  The people on the boat (especially Kovac) want to throw him overboard and be done with it (no doubt echoing the sentiments of everybody watching the film at the height of the war), and yet he’s initially helpless and doesn’t even understand what they’re saying.  Later the man proves vital in performing Gus’ surgery and at least somewhat gaining the trust of the others, and later still proves himself to be much more power-hungry and duplicitous than initially perceived.  In a lesser film by a lesser filmmaker, the Nazi would be the unequivocal villain that the heroes must stamp out, and even in the case of Lifeboat we’re well-aware of how evil the Nazi regime and philosophy is, and yet we’re initially presented with a helpless German man we can’t help but initially feel sympathy for, followed by admiration, humor, loathing, hatred, fear, and every emotion in-between.  This character alone speaks worlds of what Hitchcock, John Steinbeck, and screenwriter Jo Swerling are going for: that each and every person has a side that neither they nor anyone else knew existed, and we all have the capability of committing unequivocal good or unspeakable evil when pushed into an extraordinary situation.  That we can feel so many emotions, both positive and negative, towards a freakin’ Nazi (which of course brings to mind Claude Raines’ quasi-sympathetic Nazi character in Notorious) is a remarkable achievement for a studio-system, Hayes Code-era film, and despite character simplicities and unnecessary sub-plots (like the romance between the nurse and navigator that feels just as rushed as the romance in Shadow of a Doubt) that are just about inevitable in most Hitchcock films, even the best, Hitchcock very nearly makes a mountain (a near-sprawling epic of human emotions) out of an ant-hill (a shitty little lifeboat and a bunch of blue-screen special effects) that concerns a hell of a lot more than just the Allies versus the Axis, but rather ourselves versus ourselves.



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