Sunday, June 29, 2008

CS Presents: Lifeboat

I decided to undertake something only slightly less harrowing and much more enjoyable than studying for the bar exam this summer: watching as many Alfred Hitchcock movies as I could get my hands on via my Blockbuster subscription. I will review the movies after I watch them as a way of actually posting here. I grade each movie simply on how much I liked it in relation to the others. SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to know what happens in a movie, then don't read my reviews. There will be no SPOILER ALERTs within the reviews.

Lifeboat (1944)

What I liked best about Lifeboat is that it never veered into sensationalism. Every bit of it was realistic, especially the human nature involved.

It is a virtual guarantee that this film would never be made today, at least not the way Hitchcock made it. Barely out of the shadow of World War II, the German "prisoner" is neither a shining beacon, showing us the error of our intolerant ways, nor a monster to be defeated with a stake through the heart. Can you imagine a film today that showed a shadowy Middle Eastern Muslim as neither a saint martyred by our intolerance nor as a maniacal terrorist intent on our destruction?

The German -- Willy -- had a warm, inviting face. He was pulled from the boat and we had instant sympathy for him, right up until he muttered "danke schoen" and we felt the same apprehension as our motley crew. And his acts of betrayal, pushing Smith/Schmidt off board, hoarding the water and the energy supply, directing the boat toward a German supply ship, wasn't the act of a madman trying to starve and kill his American/British crew mates. It was selfish, but he thought he was doing the right thing for everyone involved. Willy was easily the most competent member of our crew: he instantly took charge during the storm and did everything right. Willy's dual nature is why the film has been seen both as German and Allied propaganda.

There was a small throwaway moment that anyone who has ever really liked someone should recognize. Sparks was playing with the rope in Mac's hair, pulling on the string so it would be untied, and she asked him, "Why do you like to do that?" There was a sigh of half a beat and he replied, "I don't know." The dialogue is borderline ridiculous, but it captured that feeling of intimacy when you get to touch and tease that person you like and you do it for reasons you can't even explain. It's one of the best parts of being in "deep like." (One of my co-workers has been dating a girl that he is falling for fast, but he hasn't completely gone head-over-heels. We dubbed it a state of deep like.)

No character in this film was one-dimensional. The black man was neither the minstrel nor was he all knowing and wise. He had a history of petty crime that he was trying to overcome. He could play his recorder (god, did that bring back memories of fourth grade), but it wasn't handled in demeaning way. Telluah Bankhead's character managed to be everything you would imagine a wealthy socialite on a lifeboat to be, but never ventured into territory later covered by Mrs. Thurston Howell. She was both the woman who was appalled at losing her precious footage and the woman who willingly let the young mother wear her mink coat.

As a matter of sheer filmmaking, the amputation scene should be shown to every aspiring director. We see nothing of Smith's leg. We are left to imagine the wound and we see the surgery from the prospective of Sparks, a man who couldn't see the surgery. We see his facial expressions and we see the expressions of the people who can see the surgery. And the boot falling to the ship's floor tells us everything we need to know. I guarantee that Hitchcock could have not topped what imagined and HE KNEW THAT. For a non-Hitchcock example of getting it right vs. screwing it up, compare Silence of the Lambs to Hannibal.

The film perfectly captured the despair when you believe that there is no hope to how your thinking changes when rescue is imminent. Think back to the times in college when you had no money and didn't see any money coming in for a while. You stare at your pantry and think, "well, that bag of noodles should last me for a while. I am never going to waste my money again. I can't live like this, but I don't know when it is going to end. I wonder if I'll even have enough money to go home for Christmas. Please God, I really hope so. I don't want to have to beg my parents just for gas money. I don't want them to know how broke I am." And you mope around like that until you get a check you weren't expecting or someone offers you a quick job to make some cash. Flush with the feeling of having money in your pocket, all of that thinking about changing your ways is gone as you waste it as quickly as you can. As soon as rescue is 20 minutes away, Connie begins to worry what she looks like. Ritt has the gleam of capitalism in his eyes, no longer lamenting that he has no wife and kids to go back to. And the final scenes, with our new German captive, only adds to the film's ambiguity.

Grade: A/A-
Up Next: The Trouble With Harry