MAGUFFIN AT SEA: Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat

During the 1940’s, Alfred Hitchcock did his bit to help the war effort by filming several propaganda films, two of them – Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage – at the behest of the British War Ministry. In addition, four of the dozen feature films were connected in some way with the war. Of these, only one, Notorious (1946) can be called one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. We’ll speak about that one in a few weeks. 1940’s Foreign Correspondent is a fanciful, light-hearted adventure about pre-war espionage, where crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) exposes traitors to the cause for peace, giving the Western Allies a bit of an advantage before the war begins; plus, he manages to fall in love. 

1942’s Saboteur is essentially an inferior remake of The 39 Steps (making me pleased that Elliot chose Steps over Saboteur as our bonus film): they share the same Hitchcockian trope of an innocent man on the run against false charges of murder and espionage; in their search for exoneration, both accused murderer Richard Hannay and accused saboteur Barry Kane expose traitors amongst their own countrymen, save the country (and, perhaps, the world), and manage to fall in love with a beautiful blonde who, along the way, transforms from icy cool to passionately hot. As I said, Saboteur is inferior to Steps in every way – except for the final confrontation between good and evil, symbolically set atop the Statue of Liberty. And yet I can’t help rooting a little for Norman Lloyd as the real saboteur. His performance is more gripping than that of Robert Cummings as Barry. 

Saboteur: Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) hanging around in New York.

Our main film for today, Lifeboat (1944) is something of an anomaly for the director. It has suspense but isn’t a suspense film. It contains elements of his typical scenarios without directly settling on any of them. The story came from an idea of Hitchcock’s, and he hired no less than John Steinbeck to develop it. Their collaboration was difficult and ended badly, with Steinbeck objecting to Hitchcock’s changes and demanding to have his name removed from the project. (His name appears prominently on the opening shot.) The entire film takes place in a lifeboat, and to film it, Hitchcock built two boats, used one of them for close-ups and put the other in a giant water tank for storm and sea travel footage. 

The shoot was incredibly difficult, and the actors suffered illness and injury. Star Tallullah Bankhead came down with pneumonia twice, and Hume Cronyn cracked two ribs and nearly drowned in the tank during a storm sequence. Another actor became so ill during filming that he had to be replaced (by William Bendix, who is wonderful here.) Once it was released, Lifeboat was misunderstood by audiences and critics alike, who felt that Hitchcock was glorifying the German characters and portraying the American and British folk in a degrading light. 

The result is a Hitchcock film that many Hitchcock fans don’t love. (Donald Spoto, one of his biographers, named it his least favorite Hitchcock film.) It’s something of a morality play, and it gives Hitchcock a chance to not-so-subtly wag his finger at the Americans as if to say, “Get cracking on this war, fellas, those damn Nazis are bombing my mom over in London!” Getting scolded and having a moral jammed in your face cannot be easy for audiences, and the contemporary crowds did not love this movie. But Lifeboat, as experimental, controversial, and unsubtle as it is, cannot be dismissed as merely second tier Hitchcock. You have to look a little bit harder through it’s fast-paced 90+ minute running time to find what makes it a Hitchcock film, but the clues are definitely there. 

More often than not, a Hitchcock film begins with a panning shot over a cityscape that moves ever closer to a specific building, in through a window and directly into the action. Lifeboat begins immediately after a British freighter carrying passengers is sunk by a German U-boat, which is itself capsized by return fire. Still, Hitchcock details the loss and establishes the backstory with brilliant economy, first through a wave of black smoke and then by having the camera track the debris from the British cruise ship that floats in the water – a copy of The New Yorker, playing cards, piano music, a chessboard. Finally we come upon a large lifeboat adrift in the sea, with a lone passenger incongruously dressed in a luxurious clothes fur coat, bedecked in jewels, surrounded by luggage and elegant to a fault. 

Spoiled Little Rich Girl, Part I: Connie Porter (Tallullah Bankhead)

Constance “Connie” Porter (Bankhead) is the leading player in the ensemble that is about to join her aboard the lifeboat, and the moral journey she is about to take is pure Hitchcock. At the start of our class, Elliot suggested that Lifeboat is one of the few films by the director that doesn’t contain a Maguffin, that thing everyone is searching for which really doesn’t matter. (A perfect example of the Maguffin can be found in our bonus film, where the thing that doesn’t really matter turns out to be . . . the 39 steps!) 

I respectfully disagreed with Elliot (well, I made faces in my Zoom box, which was disrespectful and for which I – sort of – apologized.) I see the whole lifeboat as a sorta Maguffin as far as Connie is concerned. When we meet her, she is vain and focused on her scoop, assessing the others around her for their potential to help her. Her journey aboard the lifeboat will change her, both physically and otherwise. The other members of this ensemble will change, too, but Tallullah is the star, dahling, don’t ya know? (She was evidently despised by her fellow castmates, whom she treated with disdainful rudeness, and yet she and Hitchcock got along well. Contrast this with Mary Anderson, who played army nurse Alice Mackenzie. Hitchcock did not like her, and when she asked him which was her best side, he famously replied, “My dear, you’re sitting on it.”)

As I watch these films again, I’m having fun connecting one to another, and one of the biggest things that struck me watching Lifeboat was how it seems Hitchcock would revisit the character of Connie Porter twenty years later. The resemblance between her and Melanie Daniels of The Birds cannot be a coincidence. Both are self-involved socialites. Connie writes a newspaper column; Melanie’s father owns a newspaper. Both women are bedecked in furs when danger first strikes (on a small boat!) and both are stripped of their elegance and dignity as the situation worsens.

Poor Little Rich Girl, Part Two: Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) in The Birds

But this is Hitchcock, where the nightmare is good for what ails ya: we’ll talk about Melanie in a couple of months, but her fate is foreshadowed by that of Connie, who is humanized by her experience. At first, she is worried about the run in her stockings and getting her story written. The first changes are physical as, one by one, Connie’s possessions – her camera, her typewriter, her fur coat – are lost at sea. The first unselfish act she performs is to lend her coat to Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a traumatized woman clutching her dead baby to her breast. Once Mrs. Higley understands that her child is gone, the others are able to bury it at sea, but during the night, the bereaved mother slides into the water and dies, taking her tragedy and Connie’s fur with her. 

As the lifeboat picks up the rest of the survivors, we see how easily people shift to their socially assigned roles. We have four crewmen: Kovak (John Hodiak) from the engine room, crewman Gus Smith (Bendix) with a seriously injured leg, radio man “Sparks” (Cronyn), and Joe (Canada Lee), a steward, and the only major black character to ever appear in a Hitchcock film. Besides Nurse MacKenzie and Mrs. Higley, the only other passenger to survive is C.J. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) a millionaire industrialist, who almost immediately reestablishes his vacation routine from the sunken liner by playing cards and relaxing as much as he can. As much as possible, this group seems eager to re-enact life on the cruise ship and drift about until they are, hopefully, rescued.

Hume Cronyn, Henry Hull, Tallullah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, Canada Lee

 The catalyst for change comes from the final person rescued from the sea and taken on board. This is Willi, (Walter Slezak), who turns out to be a Nazi from the sunken U-boat. He seems benign, grateful for being rescued, and willing to help. His presence will divide the other passengers, and it certainly rattled critics and audiences who accused the director of creating a sympathetic portrait of a Nazi. They couldn’t have been more wrong! From the start, Hitchcock gives hints as to the man’s true nature. He appears to speak no English, and yet his eyes thoughtfully follow the angry conversation about his presence. When Mrs. Higley gives vent to her grief over her child, Willi, unseen by the others, yawns and curls up for a nap. 

Meanwhile, Willi’s presence gives Connie a purpose that connects her further with the group: she speaks fluent German and acts as translator. She also begins to soften toward the engine man, Kovak. We discussed in class how Hitchcock often presented the growing relationship between his heroes and the women that become their helpmates (and then mates) in terms most specific to screwball comedy. The template is firmly set in The 39 Steps where Richard Hannay first meets Annabella Smith when he almost inadvertently rescues her from a comic brawl at a music hall. She brazenly asks if she can go home with him, and he replies, “It’s your funeral.” 

Truer words were never said. On the run for Annabella’s murder, of which he is innocent, Hannay meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) on a train. Repeating the dead woman’s tactic, he makes love to her to protect himself as the cops race by, but Pamela is less responsive than Hannay was to Miss Smith. She responds by turning him in. In a pattern that will repeat itself over and over in Hitchcock’s canon of films, enmity turns to love through a series of misunderstandings that are amusing even as they plunge the couple into deeper danger. (More amusing, I’m afraid, than Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock’s one attempt at actual screwball comedy.)

Connie and Kovak’s relationship manages to follow much of this template in cramped quarters. Initially put off by each other – he’s too dirty, she’s too snooty – they end up in each other’s arms by the end. “Next door” to them (meaning ten inches away) the radio man and the nurse also throw off their reservations of commitment and find each other in more general dramatic fashion. These four lose their inhibitions, while poor Gus will lose his leg. (How lucky that a doctor, albeit a Nazi doctor, is in the house.) The surgery is a wonderfully fraught scene, as most of the ensemble bonds together to help (except Rittenhouse, who gets sick); at one point, someone tosses Gus’ now extraneous shoe to the bottom of the boat where it will lie until it is needed later. 

Getting creative with one’s cameo!!

We must take into account that the very experimental nature of this film is also what makes it Hitchcockian. I read somewhere that no two camera set-ups were alike. The focus on character is also rare for the director, who has rarely deviated from a plot-driven scenario. There’s still plenty of plot here, as Willi begins to throw off his lies and take charge of the situation. The sight of Willi rowing the boat as he lustfully sings German songs (played on a little flute by Rittenhouse, acting the jester now) while the others lie around the boat, numbed by hunger and thirst, is the most pitiful sight of the film. 

It takes the death of Gus, who falls overboard and is then abandoned by Willi, not as an act of malice but because the “captain” deems it inefficient to have a feverish, one-legged crewman on board any longer, to rouse the others to action. In essence, they become a mob, and they murder Willi as a mob. It’s an ugly scene, but Hitchcock mitigates it by having someone pick up Gus’ shoe to use as a weapon, reminding us of who is being killed and why. Still, nobody is let off the hook here, which may have bothered 1944 viewers but should be applauded today. We will see better examples in the future of Hitchcock’s interest in the dark side of war and espionage, but nobody comes out smelling like a rose here. 

However, Connie does become a better person. Her last unselfish act is to willingly donate her bracelet to serve as bait for catching fish. And when that fails, and the bracelet is lost, her reaction is much more comme si, comme ca than it was over her earlier losses. True, she clings to her lipstick, and as rescue approaches, she tries to make herself pretty. But something has softened within her: she is more ready to embrace her humanity and to take others into her heart. 

Everyone is changed along with Connie – except for Joe, the black man, who is saintly and heroic throughout. Canada Lee plays the role to the hilt, but he cannot lift this character beyond the position of a symbol. One cannot expect at this time in history for Hitchcock to have taken full advantage of Joe’s presence to shine a light on the evils of racism, something that the emerging American Communist party had put on its platform. One must be grateful that Joe is not thrust into the typical subservient position to which most black actors were relegated. And it’s ironic that Joe, who is the only person to not take part in Willi’s death, has the heart to understand and forgive the others for what they did. 

This, ultimately, is what Lifeboat is about, the need to find tolerance in intolerable situations, to cling to love and hope when everything you thought you could count on is lost. That understanding made this viewing of the film, for me, the most rewarding yet. Lifeboat is far from a favorite of mine, but it is not the failure Spoto suggested it was. It’s that rarity of World War II movies made in the U.S. during that time, one that doesn’t parade images of patriotism before you or inundate you with upbeat music. Instead, it presents a more balanced picture of the good and bad of both sides – and emerges the better film for it.  

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Once again, we did not have time to discuss our bonus film, The 39 Steps. It might be the most popular of the English films today, and it stands up as an enjoyable thriller. As I alluded above, the list of standard tropes it contains is enormous: the beleaguered hero, somewhat adrift in his life, who becomes a better – and a married! – man by being accused of murder; the charming villain, the icy blonde who thaws and helps save her man; the Maguffin (here revealed in an excellent climax that reintroduces a character you thought at first was mere set dressing); the dangerous journey across water; the series of misdaventures, some of them comical, some of them red herrings, that all get our hero deeper into trouble; the quick finish once the problem has been resolved. It’s all there, Hitchcock’s bag of tricks to which he will return again and again.

The one scene that seems a bit different is the one that fascinates me the most. Early in his escape, Richard Hannay comes upon an elderly crofter and asks his help. The man is rude and suspicious, but his greed gets the better of him when Hannay offers him money in return for a bed for the night. The crofter’s much younger wife (played beautifully by Peggy Ashcroft) is kind where her husband is cold and, much to the crofter’s displeasure, she is sympathetic to the stranger. 

Peggy Ashcroft and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps

My question in class was: here is a woman who, when she comes to understand Hannay’s plight (having seen it in her newspaper), she is able to assess the situation, realize the man’s true, good nature, and help him. Why doesn’t Pamela possess any of this instinctive understanding of human nature? This morning, I’ve come up with two answers. The first, of course, is plot driven: if Pamela jumped into the fray with no complications, there would be no tug of romance – at least, not in Hitchcock’s view. The second reason, and this might perhaps be more of stretch, is that for the director’s formula of romance to work, both characters must undergo change. I think a close look at similar relationships in Hitchcock’s films bear this out, and to me it elevates the “helpmate’s” role considerably in the scenario. 

Next week’s double bill is rough going, both for Hitchcock fans and for classic mystery readers, who stand divided on the director’s accomplishments for both. See you then.