Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache sail onto Blu-ray – wartime propaganda review
There’s messing about in boats, and there’s Alfred Hitchcock turning a propaganda movie into an advertisement for his own bravura talent
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)
Lifeboat is a key staging post in the development of the cult of Alfred Hitchcock. Already British cinema’s great white hope, he’d been brought to America by David O. Selznick, won Best Picture at the first attempt and followed it up with a string of thrillers that began the path to his being crowned the Master of Suspense. And then he started to get cocky, his unwavering interest in setting challenges causing him to hire John Steinbeck to write a treatment for a film (about a bunch of boat survivors trapped on a lifeboat with a German sailor) that would really test him.
You can tell Hitchcock is in the mood to show off the moment a character whips out a newspaper and there is Hitch himself, providing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ in a weight loss ad. It’s a good gag but completely superfluous, taking the audience out of the action and focusing on the cult of Hitchcock. It exists solely because Hitchcock had established the running joke of appearing in all of his films and saw no reason to stop just because of impracticality. Lifeboat is a little like that joke: a film that only exists through sheer force of presence, but which hasn’t really been thought out.
The premise itself feels like the set-up to the joke – a snob, a socialist and a Nazi are marooned on a lifeboat – but this is war-time, so of course it’s in deadly earnest. Is the German they pick up a malevolent figure or simply a sailor doing his job? That alone isn’t enough to sustain suspense, especially when the law of drama requires that something happen, so the film becomes a parable of war itself. When you’re fighting, can you keep the luxury of civilised feelings? But if you succumb to savagery, can you keep the moral high ground?
This is Steinbeck material more than Hitchcock, and this kind of morality play isn’t the director’s speciality – Hitchcock is far more interested in pushing people until they become bad, but Steinbeck is more liberal. There’s little fun to be had, save for the gloriously catty figure of Tallulah Bankhead as Constance Porter, a socialite photographer who treats life-and-death struggle as tragedy tourism. She’s acerbic, forthright and an absolute hoot, and Bankhead deigned to return to movies for a really juicy role, but she’s not really a Hitchcock blonde.
Elsewhere, the performances are variable, with Henry Hull’s nuanced performance as a wealthy industrialist who caves under pressure offset by a winsome Mary Winsome and a ridiculously jaw-jutting John Hodiak. And Hume Croyne’s accent is a thing of terror. Is he supposed to be a Londoner? You can imagine Hitchcock keeping up the pretence all the way through the shoot that the actor is doing a good job, just to stave off boredom when he tired of the sadism of dragging his cast through claustrophobic, waterlogged situations that brought pneumonia and cracked ribs. Hitchcock was making James Cameron films before James Cameron was even born.
Does the experiment work? Hitchcock storyboarded the entire thing to prevent repetition, and certainly comes up with some novel angles – it’s definitely a film for aspiring directors to study – but the trouble is, there’s only so much that’s achievable in such a confined space. Save some intricate tracking shots gliding from bow to stern, Hitchcock can’t really offer anything beyond obvious tactics like stagey group shots, made more artificial by the ever-present curse of back projection. At least the inevitably slower pace of cutting allows the fine detail of the Blu-ray to capture the worn, bearded faces of one of Hitchcock’s least elegant casts, a prototype for every disaster movie ensemble since.