Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lifeboat (1944)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Well known because the whole thing takes place following a shipwreck on a lifeboat, this Hitchcock movie was actually followed by three more best described as plays on film: "Rope" (1948), "Dial 'M' for Murder" (1954), and "Rear Window" (1954). While simpler in setting, these weren't necessarily easier to make. DVD extras for these movies explain the elaborate set for "Rear Window" and the sophisticated camera work that was necessary to make "Rope" work.

Of these films, "Lifeboat" might have been the simplest in scope visually, but the screenplay by Jo Swerling ("It's a Wonderful Life") -- based on a story by John Steinbeck (who hated the movie) -- is exceptional. During World War II, a merchant marine ship and German U-boat sink each other in the Atlantic. Allied servicemen and civilians in a lifeboat pull a survivor from the drink and realize he is a German. They argue whether to throw him back and now we've got a movie.

The non-Germans on the boat provide all the various voices of reason and emotion relevant to war and ethnicity and so on. Tallulah Bankhead plays a cross between Rosalind Russell's character in "His Girl Friday" (1940) and Tallulah Bankhead. William Bendix plays Gus, a guy who eventually could form a support group with James Franco's character in "127 Hours." If you get my drift.

Surprisingly, "Lifeboat" was poorly received because the German in the story, Willi (Walter Slezak), was said to have been portrayed too positively. This criticism is just plain wrong because otherwise the film would have no third act. Once Willi's motives are less ambiguous to everybody on the boat, their conundrum is less about about trust, and far more about whether to have compassion toward another human being in the face of self-preservation. In fact, the final moment of the film is a statement that implies the moral inferiority of Germans -- or at the very least, "people like that." Recommended!

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