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.
I love trailers. Absolutely love them. Back in the early days in the internet (when I was 13-14) viewing trailers was pretty much all I used the web for, besides reading Ain’t It Cool News and sending lovelorn MSN messages to rightly disinterested and uneasy teenage girls. I downloaded the grainy Quicktime trailer for The Phantom Menace along with everyone else. Same with Fellowship of the Ring.
I can’t help but feel that trailers have lost a bit of their luster for me in recent years – the accepted wisdom is that now trailers give away too much of the film, yet I really don’t think that’s the case. If anything, older trailers are just as bad if not worse about giving away plot details. Check out this After Hours trailer – or rather, don’t if you haven’t seen the film, because it’s beat for beat basically the entire film. Granted, After Hours doesn’t have much of a plot, so it isn’t the end of the world – but how about this trailer for Chinatown? THE END OF THE TRAILER IS ALSO THE END OF THE FILM. Old horror films are particularly bad, with Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street both being guilty of showing every single murder that takes place in their respective climaxes.
I think the problem with modern trailers is not that they give away too much – it’s more that they are more transparently prepared by a marketing company, as opposed to the film-makers. There are some notable exceptions – the recent Muppets trailers have a lot of fun with trailer tropes, and David Fincher puts some really good trailers together, with the fantastic The Social Network trailer recently blowing minds. (I have a friend who has seen upcoming The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trailer and reports it’s similarly awesome, with another great cover of a classic song…)
On the whole though film-makers seem a lot more reticent to become involved with trailers, which is a shame because it is basically a chance to make another little short film, with just as much potential for imagination and craftsmanship as there is in their feature length counterparts.
Someone who understood this totally was perhaps the greatest and most influential of all directors, Alfred Hitchcock. In this wonderful trailer for The Birds, embedded below, Hitchcock himself delivers a monologue on the history of birds that is both hilarious and dripping with sarcastic menace. There is only a couple of seconds of footage from The Birds itself at the very end, yet it’s still a wonderful advert for the films whilst also being a great short. Also, despite its irreverence, it is actually a great compliment to the film itself – it casually brushes off and pre-empts an unanswered mystery in the film that could have proven to be a sticking point for audiences, who might have left the film asking “Why did the birds attack?” Hitch’s typically sardonic response, issued in the form of this fantastic trailer, is: “Why wouldn’t they?”