The Out to Sea Blogathon: Lifeboat (1944)

When I saw the Out to Sea Blogathon the first thing that came to mind was Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. The reason for this is that when dealing with seafaring narratives you are normally are left with few options of how to approach it in terms of the kind of story being told.

As per usual Hitchcock worked from a concept first conceived in prose. In this case a story by John Steinbeck. Shaping into cinematic story proved a daunting task in the scripting stage, as Hitch told Truffaut in their now-legendary interview series:

I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his screenplay was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was complete and was ready to shoot, I discovered the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give dramatic form to each of the sequences.

This kind of revolving door of writers was not unusual then, nor is it unusual now; nor is a director’s pass of the script. This kind of revisionary writing is what many directors do in lieu of writing their own scripts start-to-finish—Spielberg would be a modern day example. Much of Hitchcock’s contribution can be seen in Constance Porter’s (Tallulah Bankhead) arc. However, there are other touches that make this work special, one of under-appreciated works.

In the shipwrecked variant of the seafaring tale (this film deftly incorporates elements of that, war film, and chamber drama) there can be visual monotony to the goings on. What Hitchcock does to break this up is balancing the claustrophobic (being on a small lifeboat with a group of survivors) to agoraphobic (the oceanic nothingness that surrounds them). Another visual component that gives this film some vibrancy is that Hitchcock uses close-ups sparingly. Instead he frames many three-quarter, two-, three-shots, and larger group shots.

While, like Rope, this is a unity of space tale (but not time) yet there are cinematic moments, cuts, and mise-en-scène. So while the actors often share the frame listening and reacting to each other in the same take this film never feels theatrical.

As the title indicates the primary motivation for all the characters is survival. It instantly jumps into the action barely showing the sinking of the passenger ship by a U-Boat and getting right into the lifeboat.

The sea and their vessel is the ideal setting for this clash of characters who are a microcosm of World War II’s combatants. The focus remains myopically on the characters only focusing on the seafaring aspect as much as necessary and as a function of these characters.

As Hitchcock did later on The Birds, there is no musical score in this film. It’s another decision that focuses the audience’s attention on the characters as it searches for more verisimilitude and less spectacle.

As each passenger climbs out of the wreckage and onto the boat, there is tension and conflict as those already on the boat discover who the newcomer is and more about them. This is mostly subsumed and not bombastic. Most of the overt conflict surrounds the character of Willi (Walter Slezak), the German who comes aboard.

There are deceptions along the way but the character of Willi is most definitely an intriguing one. Hitchcock mentioned to Truffaut that some criticism from the press about the film was about the Nazi being too skilled, in short that they wanted the movie to be more propagandistic as it was released in 1944. However, the fact that he was the most qualified to captain the lifeboat doesn’t changed the fact that he lied about his rank on the U-boat and what supplies he kept on his person amongst other things. Plus, he goes to great lengths to earn their trust in order that his deception(s) can go undetected.

Had the film been more starkly black and white in its characterization, as some critics wanted it to be (judging a film by what you want it to be, and not what it is, is a cardinal sin of criticism), I don’t think the film would have had the afterlife its enjoyed despite its disappearing from cinemas with little fanfare upon its initial release. Save for a rather lengthy run in New York.

With any film the audience, both critics and the general public, are the final arbiter of meaning and impact–or at least have the final say whether “correct” or not. My perspective ends up being somewhere between Truffaut who said:

At one time I was under the impression that Lifeboat intended to show that everyone is guilty, each of us has something to be ashamed of, and that no one man is qualified to pass judgment others.

And Hitchcock who said:

Here was a statement telling democracies to put aside their differences temporarily and to gather forces and concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was derived from a spirit of unity and determination.

In drawing the characters out, in giving them all dimension, you will naturally see flaws and positives in all these people. Having no character be a paragon of virtue is what makes this film art and not the propaganda some desired.

Yet Hitch’s message is also there, especially at the very end after the second shipwrecked Nazi is dealt with, the line is clearly delivering the moral he wants, but can be variously interpreted such that it doesn’t become a preachy statement–a trap many films of the era fell into. It could taken as a modern spin on the expression “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” The preceding events showed that when these people allowed their better natures to prevail and followed the Golden Rule they were taken advantage of. They were shown over and over again they could not deal with the Nazis humanely.

With Lifeboat Hitchcock puts on a morality play at sea with representative figures which are archetypal, yet layered; well-rounded and not stereotypical and it is perhaps that it did not connect as well 76 years ago as it might now.

Favorite Older Films First Viewed in 2013 (Part 1 of 5)

This is an idea I first saw on Rupert Pupkin Speaks. The idea is to list your favorite films from the past year that you saw for the first time, but exclude new releases. This allows much more variety and creates a lot of great suggestions if you read many of them.

Since I tracked these films much more closely this year my list grew long. I will occasionally combine selections by theme, but there is enough for five posts. These choices are in no particular order.

Enjoy!

The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)

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There’s not much that can be said (I’m quite sure) about these two films that hasn’t already been said. Perhaps what is likely more interesting to you who read this is how and why I went so long without seeing these films. I think with a lot of movies it boils down to wanting enough separation from all the hyperbole. I think once I started developing some eclectic tastes that hearing merely that: “It’s great. You HAVE to see it.” became more of a deterrent than an incentive.

Quite frankly I nearly put just part two here because it’s that much better (it’s like watching two amazing movies at the same time) but you can’t have one without the other, and one thing I take solace in is that as opposed to people who saw them as they were released I saw part two a week after part one and only waited 24 hours before being terribly let down by part 3.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Warner Bros.)

I tried to split where I saw these films when creating the five parts of this series. Thus, the likelihood of having consecutive classics is lessened. I saw this film during 31 Days of Oscar.

This was my initial capsule review:

This is an incredibly intricate and thankfully subtle-when-it-counts psychological drama. It also has an interesting approach of showing us what is seemingly your typical, bitter, drunken, couple of academia, then when their guests arrive we start to learn, slowly but surely who they really are, and the portrait painted is shocking, harrowing and really makes you think.

A personal note is that I recall the Walpurgisnacht segment from an acting class I took in college as it was one of the assigned scenes. It was interesting to not only see a film version, but also to be exposed to the entire work.

A Wicked Woman (1934)

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This is a film I saw thanks to TCM, and fittingly features an actor I spotlighted in the Children in Film Blogathon, Jackie Searl. This is a film that offers in his filmography another break from his usually slimy, bratty persona. It’s also one of his older performances from when he could still be considered a young actor and eventually transitioned to adult character roles.

It’s a brisk tale that’s a melodramatic romance. It’s briefer synopsis as offered by the IMDb is rather a simple one:

A mother, who, to save her children from a bestial father and herself from being killed, kills her husband and makes a bargain with God that if she remains free for ten years, in order to raise her children, she will then give herself up to justice.

The complications that could occur are inherent and the film does well to put some unexpected spins on the scenarios that ensue.

Lifeboat (1944)

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This was a year that more and more saw more gray area tales with World War II as a backdrop. However, this one is by no means new. What’s fascinating in this film is that despite its unity of space, and the potential visual doldrums that any seafaring tales can bring on; this film remains vibrant, tense and character-based throughout, and through Old Hollywood magic (and Hitch) is pretty great to look at throughout.

The suspense is palpable because of the characters, how their drawn and the situations they find themselves in.

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)

Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943, RKO)

It seems that some series have some late sequence gold in them. This film in the Weissmuller era, and in the RKO years nonetheless; pulls off quite a miraculous feat in being as enjoyable as it is.

This movie is ridiculously fun to watch. It’s crowd-pleasing aspects drench it and still radiate off the screen to this very day. Having traversed the series anew my expectations were corrected, but even thinking back to where they (the expectations) had been this blew those right out of the water regardless.

You don’t have to watch all the prior Weissmuller Tarzan films to get this one, but you’ll certainly have more of an appreciation of how unexpected this one was if you have.

Blondie (1938)

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When people discuss that sequels are not new they often cite the glut of Blondie films that were made from the late-1930s through the early 1950s. Having gotten a cheap boxset a while back I decided to crack the seal when I heard this cited several times over.

Blondie was still in a fairly consistent rotation through syndicates in the comics section of newspapers when I was young. However, that was a small taste, and lower down the reading list for me. Despite the fact that these films seem to be TV cuts with a later scene of confusion spliced in at the head of the film as a carrot. Regardless, it’s well set-up, still funny and fairly timeless. It’s a series I’ll gladly continue through the next year.

Love on the Run (1979)

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Yes, I had somehow not completed the Antoine Doinel films. I love Truffaut, and somehow I hadn’t. My miscalculation was that there would be a predictable ebb-and-flow to the series. I like The 400 Blows just fine. I don’t hold it as highly as others either in his canon or the whole of his career. But viewing the entire series its a wondrous journey and this is perhaps my favorite. It cannot and would not be viewed out of sequence, as I made such mistakes in the past, but viewed in sequence you may find your own favorite. There’s much magic later on in the series, as opposed to most.

Asylum (1972)

Asylum (1971, Amicus Productions)

I have to admit I had not even heard of Asylum until a few years ago when the horror anthology became something I was more consciously aware of. My reticence again was due to hype. I don’t have sufficient frame of reference to rule this out as the best ever, but while it’s not the one I enjoyed most it is crazy good and a fairly cohesive one as opposed to most.

Dracula (1931; Spanish Version)

Dracula (1931, Universal)

Here’s another case where there’s a classic film that I liked and appreciate but was not as giddy about as some are. When I heard about this foreign-language version (an aspect of the Hollywood system that will probably never cease to fascinate me) I knew I had to see this and may as well get the legacy box.

The alternately scored Dracula
is also great, but this one was made simultaneously with its own original score and while some things are trade-offs (like no Lugosi) some large and some small aspects are so great, and nearly predictive of what I wanted to see in the original.

If anything this is the earliest proof that a remake or alternate version of a film is much like a revival of a stage play: it’s not a replacement, just a different vision and this is one I responded to greatly.