UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Lifeboat (1944)

This is the Hitchcock film that asks the question,  “What are we going to do with people like that?” The people in question here are the Nazis.

Lifeboat was released in 1944 while World War II was raging. I saw it at least once or twice more than 35 years ago. This is the first time I am seeing it start-to-finish since then. The entire film is limited to the setting of a lifeboat after an American ship has been torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, which was also hit and sunk. The film starts with Tallulah Bankhead wrapped in a mink coat, alone in the lifeboat with her luggage, a typewriter, and a movie camera. She is a columnist and she loses all of these things in the course of the film. As the lifeboat drifts other survivors wind up on the boat, including some of the ship’s crew, a woman and her dead baby, a nurse, and a member of the U-boat crew.

There is some debate as to what to do with the German, as they are all from democratic countries. Tallulah’s character is the only one who knows German. so she has to translate.

The entire action of the film is limited to the lifeboat so we get to see these folks argue and endure crises, and of course, the German they have picked up (Walter Slezak) is up so something, starting with taking them not to Bermuda but to a German supply ship (he has a compass but the other survivors think it’s a watch). The group fight among themselves and fight against ideologies and fight against the elements. Gus (William Bendix), one of the ship’s crew, is wounded and needs his leg amputated; that is performed by Willi, the German.

I did a little research into this movie and at the time, some critics felt that the movie was too sympathetic to the Germans, to which Bankhead replied, “that’s moronic.” The passengers make the mistake of letting Willi take over the course of the ship, based mostly on the idea  that the has the most experience. I can see how a well-drawn multifaceted view of any German during wartime clashes with propaganda, Willi shows his true colors and the lifeboat undergoes yet another course correction (trying to keep spoilers to a minimum).

I have never seen this on the big screen and I wish I had; a reviewer for the New York Daily News back in 1944 said that you can “imagine you were there,” and the film has no music score. It’s just the shushing of the waves and whatever music the passengers make with a recorder on the lifeboat.

Hitchcock also manages, in this limited set, to eke out some fantastic shots, like a shot of Willi rowing the boat taken from the floor, upward; a group of hands sheltering a lighter while a knife is sterilized for the amputation of Gus’s leg.

The movie credits John Steinbeck for the story but Steinbeck had complaints about the script and others came in to rewrite it. There were also complaints in 1944 about the African-American character of Joe (Canada Lee), whom Bankhead refers to initially as “Charcoal.”  I have been watching a lot of old movies this year and this is the only portrayal of a black man in the Hollywood system that I have seen that didn’t reduce him to a scared rabbit or a comic figure. But it is hard to totally understand this portrayal in a 1944 context all the way from 2019.

I also have to agree that Lifeboat is one of Hitchcock’s underrated movies. It was the only one he made for 20th Century Fox and it wound up in limited release because of some of the “controversies.” Ultimately, Hitchcock does put his audience into an up-close-and-personal situation where people from a democratic tradition have to deal with fascism.

 

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