LifeboatReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/19/06 00:54:33
As I write this in August of 2006, there don't seem to be many Gulf War II movies being made aside from documentaries, which strikes me as a bit odd, considering that films like "Lifeboat" sprung from World War II in real time. Is it because the country is currently too divided for a film to appeal to everybody, or because of something more practical (films take longer to create and change potentially coming much quicker)? Whatever the reason, it's a shame that the present conflict doesn't seem to be spawning any films as topical, intelligent, and gripping as thisThe film starts with a Liberty Ship sunk, and one survivor, award-winning photographer Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in the lifeboat of the title. Soon, others are fished out of the wreckage - sailors John (John Hodiak), Gus (William Bendix), who is wounded, "Sparks" (Hume Cronyn) and George (Canada Lee), the only black man in the boat; industrialist Charles "Ritt" Rittenhouse (Henry Hull); nurse Alice McKenzie (Mary Anderson), and pregnant Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Also saved from the sea is Willy (Walter Slezak), part of the crew of the German sub which was also sunk in the battle. Many think he should be thrown out of the boat, but Constance plays the "we'd be no better than them" card. Which initially seems fortunate, because he seems to be one of the most capable people on the boat.
Hitchcock made several films which took place in relatively confined spaces - consider Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes and Rope, but Lifeboat is easily the most constrained. The lifeboat doesn't give people a lot of room to move around, but it's not quite so tight as you might initially think. As factions form among the survivors, there's just enough room for them to separate a little, and maybe even hide things from the others. There’s not enough room for the camera to go anywhere, though, and there’s no easy way to remove a character from a scene for convenience’s sake. It’s quite a challenge Hitchcock and screenwriter Jo Swerling (working from a story by John Steinbeck) have set for themselves, but it’s one they meet with alacrity. There’s a bizarre combination of claustrophobia and agoraphobia at play here, as the characters have neither room to move nor bounds to their world. Hitchcock is free to move his camera around, but the irony is that even if we’re not locked into one view, we’re still seeing much the same thing.
Lifeboat was, I imagine, a rather political film when it was released. The idea of going to war with Germany was not universally popular at first, and that’s evident in how Constance and Ritt – perhaps not coincidentally, the two wealthiest and most well-traveled among the survivors – seem determined to prove that they favor no country above another in how they argue for Willy. Of course, Willy's not to be trusted, although the German-American survivor who changed his name shouldn't have his ancestry held against him. There’s a ton of propaganda here, but since Swerling and Hitchcock keep it allegorical, it seldom reaches up and smacks the audience across the face. The movie is all about the need to be resolute and unified against a foe unburdened by dissent or scruples, but it allows its cast to be human in addition to representatives of a population.
Heck, one of the things that makes Lifeboat so entertaining is that with just a little twisting of the circumstances, Willy could be the hero of the piece. Make him an American sailor in a German lifeboat, and the audience is rooting for him to use every ounce of his cunning to trick the Germans into bringing him to a friendly port. Of course, things wind up escalating past abstract oppositions, both where Willy is concerned and among the Americans, but even when they're fighting, Willy is obviously a part of it, and Walter Slezak is a delight to watch in every scene. His performance does change as more is revealed about him, and although that can be kind of a cheat, it works out all right here – it doesn't take us long to be convinced that Willy can think on his feet.
The rest of the cast does a fine job, too. Tallulah Bankhead gets one of the showiest roles, getting to be opinionated and bossy as Constance. Constance is the sort that can handle adversity (and has, both in her personal and professional lives), but would really rather not. She annoys the others with her moaning over her lost film and camera, but keeps it from being completely the bad kind of self-centered. William Bendix is the standout among the sailors; the injured leg allows Bendix to play Gus as a man robust in both body and personality who suddenly seems very small; his girlfriend loves to dance, so what will she want with him after this? John Hodiak is good as the man who frequently finds himself disagreeing with Constance almost as much because he expects their different social states to require it as from a genuine difference of opinion. Mary Anderson and Hume Cronyn are fine as the younger survivors, but they’re kind of in the cast’s second division, choosing sides rather than be pro-active.
Lifeboat isn't so much a film filled with nail-biting suspense as it is one that intrigues the audience form start to end. Hitchcock doesn't have to create suspense from nothing; he’s got an audience already tense from a world at war and a situation in the movie that doesn't need much of a push; an occasional gentle tap is enough to make the audience inch a little closer. The film also has a delicious ending that potentially subverts the lessons learned."Lifeboat" is an almost-perfect wartime film, current and resonant at the time it was made and still suspenseful sixty years later. It's one of Hitchcock’s very best.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|