Week 16: Lifeboat (1944), John Steinbeck, and Regrouping

Disclaimer: This essay discusses spoilers for Lifeboat. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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You could argue that Alfred Hitchcock was lucky. Starting in the silent era and working through the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hitchcock was in a prime position to do things no one had done before. A director starting out in 2016, looking back at over a hundred years of film history, will find that most if not all of their ideas have already been done.

Hitchcock was The First for a lot of his experiments. The first to make a movie look like it was all done in one shot (Rope). The first to shoot a movie all from one point of view in an apartment (Rear Window). The first to use a camera zooming in while dollying out to create a warping effect (Vertigo). The first to stage a fake flashback (Stage Fright). And in 1944, the first to have a feature film take place entirely in a small confined space: a lifeboat.

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The idea for Lifeboat had been “floating” around for a while (zing!) with Hitch teasing his collaborators about making a film that takes place in a locked closet. During 1942 and 43, stories of lifeboat rescues and sunken ships were common, and the idea percolated slowly. In an unusually mercenary move, Hitch and 20th Century Fox engaged John Steinbeck, at the height of his popularity and critical regard, to write a treatment for this new film. Steinbeck had never written for Hollywood before, although his work had been adapted (Of Mice and Men (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), etc), often to great success. Hitchcock knew Steinbeck had been a sailor and was curious to see what he’d come up with, reasoning that even if they threw it all out, the author’s name alone would bring great prestige to the project.

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John Steinbeck, who could use a few bucks for two weeks of work

As Hitch predicted, they kept very little of Steinbeck’s treatment. Steinbeck was hardly the only acclaimed author to try and fail in Hollywood; Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald all wrote screenplays of little to no distinction (Fitzgerald wonderfully satirizing Hollywood in the underrated Pat Hobby stories). Steinbeck worked on the treatment for two weeks and failed to follow Hitchcock’s carefully thought-out idea of having the passengers in the lifeboat represent a microcosm of society; not a wholly original idea, but Hitch’s plan to ratchet up the tension and class warfare in a closed-in situation was unique.

Hitchcock’s final script (by industry veteran Jo Swerling) shows remarkable fidelity to his own idea; there’s no scenes on the passenger liner before it’s sunk, no shots of the German U-Boat approaching, no prologue at all. The credits of the film are projected over a steamship’s smokestack, which is revealed to be sinking into the ocean once the credits end. There’s a long pan across the water, with the camera passing over wreckage from the ship both mundane (a New Yorker magazine) and grim (a body floating face-down), that finally leads us to Talulah Bankhead, resplendent in a mink coat with every hair in place, floating alone in a giant lifeboat. It’s a wonderfully incongruous image and Hitchcock cast Bankhead as a high-toned reporter precisely for this reason as he spends the rest of the film breaking her down. Bankhead’s character loses her camera, mink coat, typewriter, and eventually even her favorite jewelry on her journey to humanity.

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How we discover Talulah Bankhead in the film.

As the boat moves through the ghostly fog it picks up other characters: several seamen and a nurse from the boat, an out-of-touch pompous industrialist, a mother and her baby, an African-American steward, and finally a Nazi sailor from the submarine that torpedoed their boat. Each character gets their moment of sympathy as well as one of rage and madness (except the Nazi, we’ll come to him later), and the best part of the screenplay is the way it seamlessly introduces new conflicts, each of which stoke the fires of resentment among the boat’s inhabitants. Slowly all the passengers falter during the days or weeks they’re lost at sea, some die (one is outright murdered), and only the Nazi carries on. Hiding water, food, and “energy pills” from the rest of the boat, the German (who turns out to be the captain of the Submarine) single-mindedly carries on when everyone else is too weak.

Hitchcock does a great job of showing the passage of time (we never know how long they’re at sea), with blisters and sunburns showing and men growing scraggly beards. Only Talulah Bankhead still looks Hollywood glamorous and even she has her dirty moments; the rest of the cast is bedraggled and weather-worn.

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The full cast in a staged photo for the film’s publicity.

A brief word on “Joe,” the African-American seaman: we’ve already talked a lot about Hitchcock, his use of blackface, and general ignorance of characters of color. Yet Joe is an anomaly: a well-thought-out character who doesn’t speak in patois or slang, and even gets a few slyly funny lines (when the passengers are voting on what to do, he comments “Guess I’d rather stay out of this”). His part is the smaller by far, yet he’s accorded a great dignity. Much of that comes from his portrayal by stage actor Canada Lee, who had worked with Orson Welles on his stage production of Native Son. Some people are quick to credit Steinbeck with this gently positive portrayal, but Hitchcock revamped the final script and cast an actor of gravitas in the part. He knew what he was getting. It’s a nice moment of racial sensitivity, and while it’s far from a civil rights declaration, in 1944 just being treated like part of the team was a big deal.

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The rest of the cast is also exceptional. Anyone who believes the myth that Hitchcock wasn’t good with actors (created by people taking his jibe that “all actors are cattle” seriously) should watch this movie. It’s chock-full of exceptional performances, including one of the few great performances by Talulah Bankhead.

Hitchcock’s direction is remarkably subtle. Using the black and white ocean palette (and shooting entirely in a tank in a studio), he gently tweaks each scene so that the exterior of the boat reflects the interior space of the character. As the young mother looks out at the ocean and wonders what happened to her dead baby, the shot uses a filter to show the ocean as a forbidding black mass. As an argument blows up, the storm rises and water starts rushing over the side of the boat. In a mastery of point-of-view, Hitchcock’s camera never leaves the boat, not even to show them floating in a gigantic ocean, suffering under a remorseless sun, or other cliches. The only time the camera leaves the boat is for a few shots when they’re trying to use Bankhead’s jewelry as a lure to catch a fish; it’s a strange choice, most likely used to illustrate the depth of her sacrifice.

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Hitchcock discussing the shoot with Talulah Bankhead.

The biggest flaw with Lifeboat is the relentless propaganda of the script. Actually “propaganda” isn’t the right word: it’s hard to parse exactly what the film is saying. The film’s muddled politics confused audiences n 1944, just as they do today. Hitchcock attempted to describe it to François Truffaut, saying that the goal was to show how disorganized the Democratic nations are, pushing and pulling against each other, while the Fascist Germans are pulling in the same direction. It’s a film with little love or sympathy for the German people. It’s also a strangely scolding movie; while other World War II films are praising heroism and sacrifice at home, Lifeboat is damning our efforts and telling us we have to do better, be harder, and act with more cruelty.

Yet this critique out of date even by 1943 when the film was written. While Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) was a desperate call to America about the warning of Nazis (at a time when we were comfortable in our isolationist bubble), by 1943 America and the Allied powers were already pulling together. When the film was released in 1944, a warning about the superiority of Fascist Germany was a strange choice.

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Bankhead getting watered down for a shot.

This is what keeps the film from true greatness. It’s entertaining and wonderfully made, with all of Hitchcock’s technique put to effortless use. Yet the script’s reliance on making Some Larger Point, the need to tie a character’s motivation to political relevance, grows tiresome. The characters and storyline of Lifeboat are good enough to be entertaining on their own, without the larger political framework that bogs down the whole film.

For ultimately, Hitchcock isn’t someone who relishes a deep dive into politics, which makes his late-period attempts at creating spy thrillers seem strange. Hitchcock is a creature of pure entertainment and audience manipulation, maybe the greatest that the film world has ever known.

***

And just as those passengers are trapped in a boat, I’m started to feel trapped by this project. I don’t want it to turn into navel-gazing. Recently a friend shared a link on Facebook saying that problem with criticism today was the critic’s insistence on inserting their own personal point of view into their work (my response: “Uh-oh.”). I also don’t want this to become something where every second or third essay I talk about how hard this is and how I don’t know if I want to keep it up. Because I get it: there are real problems in the world. I’m a straight middle-class white guy in America: I’m the most privileged person the world has ever known.

I recognize that there’s an inherent disconnect and hubris to this project, but I also think (and hope, dear god I hope) that it kind of makes sense. I’m trying to examine the work of a filmmaker I love, and how he was there for me during moments in my life.

All of that is to say: I got nuthin’ this week. Lifeboat has stymied me. It’s a good film, not a great film, that’s too heavy on the propaganda, but still well-made and remarkably well-acted.

There’s a lot of things happening in my life right now and a lot of events to prepare. Some days it feels like all I do is promote events on social media, instead of creating actual work. I’ve been thinking about how to step back a bit from that aggregate content monster and how to reclaim myself. This project is part of that, although sadly it still involves blog posts and tweets and Facebook updates about those blog posts.

The hardest part about being a self-employed artist in 2016 has never been the work: the work isn’t easy, but it’s something you know how to do. It’s everything else, the endless self-promotion and daily grind of trying to drag people’s eyes onto your work and hold their attention long enough to click a link or come to a show. Maybe the Renaissance had it right; maybe we should go back to a system of wealthy patrons. Sidenote: Wealthy Patrons, please contact me asap.

So I’m overwhelmed. But I’m still committed to Hitchcock. Committed to learning more about him and sharing those results. This week, well, this week is a regrouping. Maybe I’ll do a Kickstarter to raise some money to support this idea (Would you buy a “Hitchcock52” poster or notebook? Please?). Maybe I’ll find a way to pull back from everything else. Or maybe this is what business is like in 2016 and I have to push through it.

These posts have been averaging around 3,000 words, and that’s something that I was initially disturbed by. I felt like these must be way too long for anyone to ever read them. But my goal is to try and create something that isn’t clickbait, that you can’t summarize in 140 characters or a photo with less that 20% text (a joke for all my Facebook marketing peeps). I haven’t been looking at how many people read this, because I don’t want to know and because it doesn’t matter. Even if I’m typing into the howling digital void right now, creating an existential “If someone writes a blog post and no one reads it, does it even exist” question, I don’t care.

I want to do this. I have to do this.

Next week will be better. And I’m glad you’re with me.

Lifeboat is available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.

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