The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: In the Atlantic during WWII, a ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle and both are sunk. The survivors from the ship gather in one of the boats. They are from a variety of backgrounds: an international journalist, a rich businessman, the radio operator, a nurse, a steward, a sailor, and an engineer with communist tendencies. Trouble starts when they pull a man out of the water who turns out to be from the U-boat.
Jason: After watching Lifeboat, I immediately did some reading about it, mostly in my biography, because I felt like I needed some background to really get into this one. More than most of the movies we’ve watched so far, an understanding of Lifeboat depends on the world events surrounding it.
James: Before we get into the bigger, deeper issues that Lifeboat is obviously about, let me say that I really enjoyed this film. I enjoyed its character-study element. I felt the film was a tad long, but I enjoyed the claustrophobia of it. I was particularly impressed with how the drama seemed to unfold naturally, and how—since I was on the boat with the characters—I was caught up in that drama. Perhaps more than any other Hitch flick so far, I felt like I was a part of the story. I liked the way I started doubting the intentions of the people. I like how Hitch makes us immediately think of the German as an enemy, but then has us re-evaluate our first impressions. So, just looking at the film on the surface, I’d consider it a successful story.
Jason: Part of me wants to dive immediately into the deep issues, because I felt, while watching, that Lifeboat is more of an allegory than a true narrative. For that reason, I didn’t enjoy it as much as many of the others we’ve seen so far. I didn’t find the “top story” to be very compelling. Overall, I found the film to be slow, with characters that never really come alive. They all bring their own stories to the lifeboat, but I was never really involved with them because there was very little follow-through. Instead, all the characters feel in service of the film’s issues and symbolism. That being said, I enjoyed a few of the film’s key scenes, which I’m sure we’ll get to.
James: You know, I agree that the characters never really come to life. But for me, the underlying story is so thinly veiled that it helps make the top story better.
Jason: Maybe we should start by talking about the characters that end up on the boat after the shipwreck that starts the movie. We’ve got Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), the high-society, materialistic fashion journalist; John Kovac (John Hodiak), the left-wing crewman; Gus Smith/Schmidt (William Bendix), the hobbled seaman who succumbs to gangrene and loses a leg; Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), the radio operator; Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), the black ship steward who was once a thief; Alice Mackenzie (Mary Anderson), the nurse; Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), the millionaire industrialist; Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel), the English mother who loses her child and commits suicide; and, of course, Willie (Walter Slezak), the U-Boat captain. For me, Willie is the main character. He’s the strongest and most determined and able of all of them, and he ends up being the motivator for most of the plot’s action. That’s a really interesting facet of this screenplay. Let’s talk about that, because I really think it’s the key to this movie.
James: I definitely agree that Willie is the focal point of the film. It seems that everything revolves around him. And it seems as if the others on the boat are simply reacting to things he does or even things they think he’ll do. In a way, he’s the story’s anchor.
Jason: To me, the most interesting thing about the film is how the cast of characters represents a microcosm of the World War II-era world. There’s one line from the biography that really struck me, regarding the German: “Lifeboat is an allegory of democracy’s all-but-suicidal acquiescences to Hitler’s bullying.” Here’s a quote from the film, spoken by Rittenhouse: “The more we quarrel and criticize and misunderstand each other, the bigger the ocean gets and the smaller the boat.”
James: The most interesting aspect of those quotes is when Willie pushes Gus overboard, which leads to the rest of the crew attacking him. Earlier, Willie had saved Gus! On one hand, the German isn’t a ruthless killer and early in the film could be seen as civilized and humane (as most of Hitch’s villains are). On the other hand, he’s evil because of Gus’s murder, as well as the way he keeps his secret flask of water from the others.
Jason: The German is definitely the most interesting character, because there are fascinating revelations about him all through the movie. I love how we have an initial suspicion of him just because he’s German, and then later he apparently saves the life of Gus. Then, we see that he’s been consulting a hidden compass and has his own agenda. The fact that he’s the strongest and smartest of all of them is an obvious allegory, but it also gives his character some complexity. At certain points, I thought he might end up being the savior of the boat. But then he turns evil. Interesting that he kills the man he saved.
James: I’m still not sure what this all has to do with Germany and World War II. Is Hitch saying that Germany has so much power that they can coerce others to follow their bidding? And what of the way everyone attacks the German? That scene seems overly harsh to me for some reason. Brutal.
Jason: The connection of Willie to Germany is simply that he is the most determined and aggressive and focused “element” of this microcosm. He’s on the covert offensive throughout the story, and the “allied” characters are just trying to figure him out. And finally, when they come to understand his motivations and evil, they turn on him collectively, like a pack of dogs, to rid the world of him. There’s a commentary in there not only about the need to join together to defeat a purposeful villain but also a comment about the nature of war itself, the descent to base animalistic, murderous impulses. I thought it was particularly interesting that one of the characters uses the shoe from Gus’s amputated leg to beat Willie to death.
James: You summed that all up pretty nicely, actually.
Jason: The movie’s politics are mostly clear. The pivotal scene is when the people in the boat “ally” themselves together to defeat the “enemy.” But they get more interesting when you dive deeper into the characters. For example, the struggle between Kovac and Rittenhouse can be seen as a mini Communist parable about management versus labor. There’s also an anti-capitalist statement about the Connie Porter character losing all her material possessions (her camera, fur coat, typewriter, and bracelet) before finding salvation. (One of the books says that her “moral itinerary is punctuated by the discarding of material objects.” In fact, according to the Spoto book, a lot of things are “lost” in this film: a baby, a leg, direction, and the characters’ moral supremacy after they commit murder.
James: Yeah, I got the whole capitalism thing with Connie. She’s a rich girl from the outset. And she becomes more human as the movie goes on. So in that regard, the less she has, the better person she is. To a degree, anyway. It could also simply be pointing out that in the end, possessions mean nothing. Only survival matters, and to survive, you don’t need jewelry, luggage, or even DVDs.
Jason: One thing I noticed while watching is that Lifeboat breaks Hitch’s old rule of “pictures of people talking.” This movie is completely about people talking. It’s unavoidable, given the setting and the type of drama this is, but still, it’s evidence of Hitch breaking further from the silent-film traditions.
James: This film is about people talking, but you know, the look at the human psyche is the action here. I didn’t find it boring like most “people talking” films. There was very little outright action (and when there was, it was startling), but it still moved.
Jason: I didn’t find it boring, but I did find it slow. And you’re right, when the action scenes came, they really gave the film a charge. I thought the whole leg-amputation scene, as well as the lead-up to it, was well done and suspenseful. The suicide of the mother was also well done and expertly shot—it was really only suggested by the taut rope leading out of the boat. A death without a body in sight. I was also surprised by the whole attack on Willie. But the most startling scene is at the end, when the Nazi-filled lifeboat coming toward them is blown out of the water by Allied forces. The more I write about the film, the more I realize that it’s filled with really effective moments, and that most of those moments are character-driven.
James: Do you remember the last line of the movie? I think it might help determine how each character grows. It seems that Connie develops as a character, but what about the others? I’m not sure.
Jason: Here’s the last line. It’s just after the second Nazi soldier comes aboard and pulls a gun on them. Some of the lifeboat members want to help him, and others don’t. They talk about the three people who died on the boat, wondering what they would have done in this situation. Connie has the last line: “Well, maybe they can answer that.”
James: Are they saying that the dead might react differently in that situation? That in life, we give in to temptation and anger and stereotypes? And that once you’re dead, you realize none of that matters and we really should be compassionate? Is that it?
Jason: Sounds fair to me. Or just that death brings a new understanding of the petty foibles of humans.
James: It seems that at the beginning, everyone starts out as stereotypes. Connie gets guff from a few of the crew because she’s clean and has all her baggage. Of course, people don’t like the German. But by the end, they’ve grown to trust one another. To a point anyway. Everything is whittled away until the characters are no longer black and white, man and woman. They’re just people. People in danger of dying.
Jason: You’re right, that’s an element, and a big part of it is allying against a common element, and the natural camaraderie that develops in times of crisis. Well, let’s walk through the characters again. I agree that Connie’s growth is the most pronounced. Kovac goes from a hard, uncertain leader to a softer, more confident leader by the end. Gus gets his leg amputated and goes slowly insane, so his growth is downward. Stanley is kind of a cipher, but he falls in love with Alice, who manages to work through some of her own romance problems in the process. Joe stays on an even keel, moralistically, and is probably the most unchanged of the entire crew, unless you count Willie. Rittenhouse is all about money at first, accusing Kovac of cheating in their makeshift poker games, but by the end he’s willingly giving it away to Kovac, seemingly softening in his industrialist ways. Of course, Mrs. Higgins can’t handle the loss of her child and so commits suicide. And then there’s Willie, the German who doesn’t change at all in the film and yet is the catalyst for everything. He’s the man who sank the ship, and he’s the man who starts every character arc in motion.
James: I really like the fact that Gus finally accepts his true name as Schmidt, but I’m not sure exactly why the German suggests that Smith acknowledge that. The negative reason for Willie to do that would be to help him accept the fact that he’s killing a Jewish man, or the positive reason would be because he wants the man to die after accepting his heritage.
Jason: I didn’t make the Jewish connection you did, but it makes perfect sense in the context of the film. Of course, I side with your negative interpretation, that Willie wanted to “dehumanize” Gus by giving him back his Jewish name. That’s a good catch, my friend.
James: I found it interesting that none of them really makes a conscious change. Connie hates losing her possessions, even the final one with the bracelet. I got the impression that Rittenhouse is a little wacky toward the end when he offers Kovac a dock. That seemed false. I can see him going back on that promise once he reaches land.
Jason: Yep, all the characters evolve only because of their predicament. You’re right, we have to wonder how the experience will change them in the long run. I think in the context of the film, we have to assume that they’re changing for the long term. I think Hitch wants us to believe that.
James: But this is another Hitch film that I’d like to see again some time, to specifically watch for the growth of each character. And to see what each character portrays—their weaknesses and strengths. To be honest, I didn’t really like many of them. I was pulling for the German most of the time, hoping that he would be revealed as a “good guy.” Connie’s change, with her losing her possessions, is the most obvious. But I bet the others have symbols, too. For example, what did Mrs. Higgins and her baby symbolize? Loss of innocence, maybe?
Jason: Maybe just a symbol of the casualties of war? Loss of innocence is part of that, but more like the necessary human toll that war takes?
James: One thing I didn’t get was why they all let Willie take control. I mean, there were, what, seven of them? They could’ve stormed him at any time.
Jason: There was a lot of resistance to Willie taking control at first, but I think his obvious prowess and knowledge made him the clear choice for ensuring their survival. I didn’t have a problem believing that. And besides, he wasn’t actually in control. Kovac took command, even though Willie gradually took over the “power” of the boat thanks to his sneaky superiority. There’s a comment about the war there, too.
James: And what was the deal with the constant talk of Gus’s “enemy”? The guy who he expected to steal his girl? It was an interesting piece of the story when they’re repeatedly saying his name. Was there something to that?
Jason: Not sure about Gus’s mania, except that it adds some humor to the plot. I enjoyed his constant refrain of “that kind of . . .” as in, “She’s not that kind of girl!” And the musical rhythm of his enemy’s name, something like Al Magaruti. “The hell with Al Magaruti!” I think it just showed how he was escaping into his own little world and refusing to deal with the present.
James: That did add some much-needed humor.
Jason: I guess what I took the most from Lifeboat was the confined setting, which was obviously an experiment for Hitch, along the same lines as The Lady Vanishes and Rope (coming up). I gather it was a sort of comment on how psychological dramas of the time were shot in close-ups and medium close-ups and how settings really didn’t matter.
James: I thought this film’s confined setting was the best thing about the movie. It feels more claustrophobic than The Lady Vanishes, and the gimmick doesn’t quite work in Rope (one continuous shot). I felt the claustrophobia in Lifeboat more than the others. The tension was more powerful here. As I said before, I felt like I was on the boat with these characters. Plus, being out on that water is a bit more lonesome and scary than the other films.
Jason: One of the books states that this is “the third in Hitchcock’s trilogy of war-time stories.” It’s interesting to compare Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur with this one. Those earlier two films are flag-waving propaganda, but this one seems more introspective and critical—appropriate for a confined setting in which the characters are in close quarters with everyone else, I guess. In a way, the wartime element of this film dates it even more than the other two. The war is essential to this movie. It almost requires that you have an intimate knowledge of the forces and personalities involved in the war. I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of subtext just because we’re so far removed from that era.
James: War is definitely essential to Lifeboat. You mention that Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur are propaganda. Well, here war is an integral part of the plot. As you said, being so removed from that time period makes it difficult to understand all the finer points of this film.
Jason: One of the things we talked about after Foreign Correspondent was that the climax of that film might have served as the “seed” of this film’s idea.
James: That’s interesting. I remember that.
Jason: Did you notice there’s no music through this film—only brief title music at the beginning and end? It’s only the sounds of the boat and the water. Well, and the dialog. Did you notice that while watching? It makes me realize that the sound design was very effective.
James: Unconsciously, I did notice that there wasn’t any music. Several times during the film, I noticed the sound of the boat hitting the water, or the creaking of the boat. I noticed that it felt sparse and added to the isolation. But I didn’t really make that leap to noticing there was no music. Interesting. One thing I noticed is the film’s circular structure. It begins and ends with a shipwreck. I like how Hitchcock does that consistently.
Jason: I read that Hitch originally wanted Ernest Hemingway to contribute to the writing process, but Hemingway was too busy. He brought on John Steinbeck to write a treatment, but Steinbeck ended up writing something very different from what Hitch wanted. I like how Hitch continually seeks out established writers for script help, but it’s interesting that, really, he’s got very firm ideas about what he wants and he and Alma end up writing the bulk of the material anyway, usually uncredited.
James: I love the fact that he gets established writers, but I agree, it’s interesting that Hitch had strong opinions and desires, and he had Alma help change the story to meet his needs. Part of me wonders if Hitchcock was influential in having the story altered my multiple writers. Was that normal back then? Today, it seems that stories are changed by lots of writers on a project. Did Hitch start that trend, perhaps?
Jason: I think it was pretty standard already for multiple writers to help on scripts.
James: I look forward to reading the biography if for no other reason than to learn about his relationship with Alma. They worked together and lived together. They must’ve really got along.
Jason: It’s funny, I was watching for bird symbolism in this film, even expected it in the form of seagulls. But in the end, it’s dealt with in dialog, when Kovac calls Willie both a nightingale and a buzzard, all in the same sentence—a little foreboding involved with the German right away.
James: Yep, noticed that right away.
Jason: Maybe we should talk about what some saw as racism in the film. I know while we were watching (this was the first film we watched together for this little project) that you gave a little smirk when Joe turns out to be a former thief. And you could also say that he’s a stereotype because he’s the most deeply religious of the lot. And he calls attention to racial injustice with his line, “Do I get to vote, too?” The interesting flipside of all that is that he refuses to take part in the killing of Willie at the end. What do you make of it? We saw some mild racism in early films like The Ring, but do you think Hitch is racist? Interestingly, Steinbeck thought so after he saw the finished film.
James: I’m not sure if Hitch was racist, but a lot of the characters in his films, or a lot of the themes and scenarios, definitely appear racist. As far as Joe not participating in the beating of Willie, I sort of saw that as one of two things. First, perhaps it’s because he doesn’t fit in. He knows not to participate in such things because of his station, which is always serving whites, not working with them (he even has to be ordered to steal from Willie). Second, perhaps he understands the essence of segregation, or racism, or whatever. Maybe he knows how that might turn out and he doesn’t want to participate.
Jason: I actually think Joe is a noble, principled character in the film, but maybe that’s what some objected to, in a kind of reverse racism. Maybe people were just really on edge as far as perceived racism at the time. Maybe it was very forward-thinking of Hitch to portray Joe realistically. Hmmm . . .
James: I don’t know. It seemed that Joe’s character elements really stood out compared to the others. I don’t know what it was, but he called attention to himself. That’s not exactly it, but I can’t put my finger on it. I found it odd that every time we learned something about him, it seemed less natural than the others—almost as if Hitch was trying to say something. He was the most moral. He was religious. He was an ex-thief. He didn’t join in during the slaying of Willie.
Jason: Yeah, and that’s probably why a lot of people shouted “racism”—simply because Joe stood out.
James: There just seemed to be something there that I’m missing. I’m not sure it’s racism, but something made me notice his characterization most of all.
Jason: Here’s something funny I read about Mary Anderson, who played the nurse. At one point, she asked Hitch, “Mr. Hitchcock, which do you think is my best side?” And he answered, “My dear, you’re sitting on it.”
James: No way. That’s hilarious. Did he really say that? Where did you read that? Oh man, Hitch would be awesome to have over for dinner.
Jason: I know, I laughed out loud at that. I read it in the biography. And I totally agree with him. Anderson was a little hottie.
James: There was that aspect of her, yes. She reminded me of Alyssa Milano when she was younger.
Jason: While we’re on the subject of humor, I gotta mention that Lifeboat features probably the best Hitch cameo so far. You’re just waiting for him to float by in the wreckage of the boat early on, but he turns up in that newspaper advertisement for Reduco Obesity Slayer. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch calls it his “favorite role.” I think I mentioned that the pictures were real. His brother had recently died young of heart failure, and Hitch was determined to lose 100 pounds and eat healthy. He went on a crash diet and would remain relatively thin for a while after this.
James: That Hitch cameo is the best of all time. No question there.
Jason: Oh, and an interesting factoid: Lifeboat was Hitch’s only film for Fox. Which probably has something to do with why it’s been so long coming to DVD. The bio devotes about 20 pages to the making of this film, because it was quite a complicated story to get off the ground—it took a year to prepare before the first footage was shot. Anyway, this film has generated more discussion than I thought. It’s a film that gets more interesting the more you think about it.