NB: A few things before you read this - I'm going to refer to the film as THE AVENGERS as opposed to official UK title AVENGERS: ASSEMBLE throughout. It's a personal choice, so don't worry about it. Also, this review, though lengthy, is almost totally spoiler free. However, if you don't want any information at all before you go see it, then reading this is at your discretion. Okay princess?
THE AVENGERS could be the best comic book adaptation ever made.
An important distinction to make, however, is that it’s far from being the best movie based on a comic book – cinematically, I don’t think it’s in the same league as SUPERMAN I/II, or the Nolan Batman films. It might not even be the best Marvel film – I’d have to rewatch them again, but I think there’s cases to be made for both IRON MAN and SPIDERMAN 2 as better stand-alone films.
But in terms of specifically replicating the experience of following a comics mythology – it’s never been done this well before.
Let me back up.
Last week saw the release of MARLEY (check out my review over at DocGeeks here), a new documentary from Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald on the short but eventful life of Bob Marley. It’s a whistle-stop tour through the reggae singer’s life, covering all the bases you might expect: the influence of marijuana, Haile Selassie and the Rastafarian faith on his music; his prolific womanizing (he sired 11 children from 7 different mothers); and his role as a peace activist and cultural icon. With a nationwide distribution and the legendary status of its subject, MARLEY is the most high-profile documentary release since last year’s SENNA, and the two films certainly invite many comparisons.
Time Out released their list of Top 100 Horror Movies today, and a cracking read it is too. Unlike most big catch-all lists of this nature, there’s a really interesting selection of choices here. The knowledge and horror credentials of the contributors really shines through, as there’s a plethora of directors who have avoided acclaim from traditional critics but are much more celebrated in horror circles and in particular it’s good to see the plucky Italians get their due, with legendary directors like Mario Bava, Ruggero Deodato, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento all being well represented on the list.
There’s surprises everywhere. I’m very surprised WITCHFINDER GENERAL didn’t make the top 100. Ditto MAN BITES DOG, and HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. There’s also no sign of SAW or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which is surely a reflection on the awful sequels than the originals, both of which I think are pretty decent. The relatively obscure Bava ghost story KILL BABY…KILL makes it into the top 50, as does spooky Japanese anthology KWAIDAN. Perhaps my biggest surprise - Clive Barker’s fourth favourite horror film is middling CGI alien invasion short ATAQUE DE PANICO!? Really? There’s also some ‘well, duh’ revelations here as well – HUMAN CENTIPEDE director Tom Six is a fan of BOXING HELENA, and his favourite horror film is SALO. Yeah,that figures.
LIFEBOAT is in many ways the ideal inaugural Hitchcock film for The Masters of Cinema series – it’s a collection that places equal emphasis on both parts of the phrase ‘cult classic’, aiming the spotlight at films from the greatest film-makers that haven’t quite been elevated to the critical pantheon, but deserve recognition as important works on their own terms.
LIFEBOAT certainly fits this mold – it’s not quite as psychologically and cinematically rich as his most critically adored works (VERTIGO, REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO), and nor does it work as well as a pure piece of entertainment as one of his ‘lighter’ efforts like THE 39 STEPS or NORTH BY NORTHWEST.
LIFEBOAT is some piece of work though, still, with a production history almost as fascinating as the film itself. The story is a classic piece of Hitch high-concept – after an Allied ship and a Nazi U-boat sink each other, the Allied survivors arrive one by one on the titular lifeboat that had been originally been commandeered by Connie Porter, a feisty photojournalist memorably played by the renowned stage actress Tallulah Bankhead.
When one survivor, Willy (Walter Slevak), crawls on board and nobody recognizes him, alarm bells begin to ring amongst the Allies, and they only intensify when he starts speaking in German. They quickly deduce that he was the captain of the German U-boat, and the group is torn on how to deal with him. Their decision periodically becomes irrelevant, however, as Willy’s superior wayfaring skills and past life as a surgeon quickly make him the most valuable person on the boat.
Suspicions about Willy remain, however, and as the survivors begin to deteriorate mentally and physically as the effects of starvation and dehydration kick in, basic assumptions about their morality and humanity are questioned, and tensions mount up until things are brought to a shocking climax.
LIFEBOAT is one of a number of war-focused movies Hitchcock made during the conflict itself - his relocation to Los Angeles came just weeks before the start of the war, and as it developed he became understandably worried about the family he had left back in London. Too fat and too old to contribute physically to the war effort, he pitched in by doing what he had always done – he made films, starting with 1940’s Euro-spy caper FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT and continuing with the shorts AVENTURE MALGACHE and BON VOYAGE (both of which are included on this new blu-ray).
Noticing that the news was regularly filled with news of spectacular naval disasters involving U-boats, and never one to eschew a technical challenge, Hitch came up with the idea of a thriller that takes place entirely on one vessel, commissioning the legendary novelist John Steinbeck to fashion the screenplay. Steinbeck actually wrote a novella that remained unpublished and was adapted for the screen by Jo Swerling.
Perhaps the most notable thing about LIFEBOAT (besides its use of one location, which we’ll get to) is its portrayal of Willy, the Nazi captain. While now LIFEBOAT has been dismissed by many as little more than Allied propaganda, in fact many critics at the time lambasted Hitchcock for the perceived treachery presenting the character as skillful, adept, and more level-headed than his Allied counterparts. Even Steinbeck distanced himself from this, claiming that the character of Willy had been vastly altered from his original story, although this may have been out of a desire to not be associated with anything seen as unpatriotic after facing similar accusations over The Moon Is Down, his 1942 novel that features a fascist group with clear parallels with the Nazi party.
These critics misunderstood the film and underestimated Hitchcock, however, who knew perhaps better than anyone how to best portray evil on screen. He knew that an effectual villain is much scarier than a foolish one, and as he humorously points out in his interview with Truffaut (also included on the Blu-ray), being a bad person doesn’t necessarily make you a bad sailor. Hitchcock was right to trust his instincts, as Willy is by far the most interesting character in the film, and the others somwhat inevitably feel like archetypes. The dialogue is snappy and engaging, however, the characters' moral quandaries and internal struggles are believable and engrossing, and nobody engineers suspense better than the Master himself.
LIFEBOAT was the first in a series of films where Hitch attempted to effectively direct himself into a corner by limiting himself to one location, and other than the masterful REAR WINDOW it’s probably his most successful effort in this, his own little sub-genre. It doesn’t feel hamstrung by its gimmick (as the one take ROPE sometimes does) and it doesn’t feel as stage-y as DIAL M FOR MURDER. Somehow, Hitch manages to keep the film visually interesting while never leaving the boat, whilst also maintaining the claustrophobic atmosphere necessary to keep his characters lively and his audience engaged.
LIFEBOAT’s flaws lie in its lack of a real star turn, although Walter Slevak as Willy comes close – Tallulah Bankhead is sassy and entertaining, but she fails to really break through the screen and give us a really memorable heroine, and the rest of the cast are somewhat unmemorable. Also, the abrupt, ironic ending feels a little misjudged compared to the rest of the film.
LIFEBOAT is still a cracking thriller, as well as something of a technical marvel, and the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray s without doubt the best version of the film yet to be released. The transfer looks pristine and gorgeous - it’s pretty remarkable that a nigh-on 70 year old, black and white film that takes place entirely in a boat can look this good. The supplementary material is also excellent, with a revealing making-of documentary, hi-def transfers of the aforementioned propaganda shorts BON VOYAGE and AVENTURE MALGACHE, and best of all, a 12 minute audio excerpt of the Truffaut and Hitchcock interview that formed the basis for Truffaut’s famous book.
A great package, then, and if this is anything to go by we can only hope Masters of Cinema will get their hands on some more Hitch in the future.