Lifeboat

Talkie of the Week: Lifeboat

USA 1944, 96 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by Jo Swerling, Based on a novella by John Steinbeck. Cast: Tullalah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Hume Cronyn, Canada Lee and William Yetter Jr.

Plot summary: After a nearly fatal attack in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, a disparate group of survivors has to decide whether or not to trust the enemy whose offer to help may or may not reflect disputable intent.

Lifeboat_posterReview: There are film enthusiasts who worship directors for their ability to bring stories to live on screen and make them memorable beyond their own lifetime and momentum. Welles, Wilder, Capra, Sirk, Lang, Houston, Wyler, Cukor, Ford, Mankiewicz, Minnelli to just name a few, each name standing for his own precept of quality, his own formula to narrative veracity. Alfred Hitchcock, no doubt, belongs to that eclectic league of masterminds whose style outlived its time and entered the halls of classic fame. With success stories such as The 39 Steps, Rear Window and Vertigo under his belt, Hitchcock is still remembered by film fans around the globe and frequently paid homage to by contemporary filmmakers. Although not peaking until the 1950s, his career was multifaceted and long-lived, spanning from the mid 1920s to the mid 70s.

In 1943, he took on a project called Lifeboat, a story originally based on an unpublished novella by John Steinbeck. Set in the midst of WWII, the tale brought up the blurry lines between decency and necessity for survival in times of war. Shot with only ten actors in a limited setting, Hitchcock turned the already dramatic plot into a claustrophobic parable about the complexities of human behavior under extreme circumstances. Unafraid of addressing cruelties and moral ambiguities, Lifeboat was released on January 28, 1944 and won instant disapproval by a number of critics who frowned on the supposedly favorable depiction of German characters. Despite this controversy, however, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards and brought Tallulah Bankhead a well-deserved New York Film Critics Circle Award for her memorable performance as pert journalist Connie Porter. In 1950, Screen Director’s Playhouse turned Lifeboat into a successful radio play with and introduction by Alfred Hitchcock and Tallulah Bankhead as his acclaimed leading lady. You can listen to the adaptation here.

For Hitchcock fans and classic movie buffs, the film does not only offer a brilliant ensemble cast but also a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat through the whole ninety-six minutes. Designed as an intimate play, Lifeboat is a real gem for anyone who likes to savor topnotch acting and tangent dialog. Praised by critics today, Lifeboat is now available on DVD with a delicious two-parter interview with the master of suspense himself.

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A Radio Treat

Two days ago, I listened to a radio broadcast from 1950, a live recording from March 23 to be exact, the day of the 22nd Academy Awards. Presented by Paul Douglas at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood with radio comments by Ken Carpenter, Eve Arden and Ronald Reagan, the show was a good two hours in length and filled with lots of joyful moments.

The show – although already exciting for any classic movie buff without great names such as James Cagney, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell and June Allyson, Anne Baxter and John Hodiac, Cole Porter, Ruth Roman and Barbara Hale – was entertaining from the start and blessed with a beautiful score presented by Gene Autry, Dean Martin and other wonderful performers. Despite the many differences in presentation compared to the lengthy ceremony I’ve long stopped watching each year, it amused me to find one announcement already existed back in 1950: the request for the winners to cut their thank you’s short. And trust me, the few people who said more than a heartfelt thank you, didn’t take center stage to present a short story about their lives. How refreshing to hear there once was a way to go about this differently, when recipients were in tears about their accomplishment without dwelling on it. How surprising to hear a young boy thank his parents and God – at least by today’s standards.

I know not everyone will share my sentiment, but I loved the mix of glamor and simplicity, such a charming combination. Stars and winners aside, the radio hosts also won my heart for their lively presentation and supportive attitude. Without making a fuss, they added to the style of a show that still showed signs of gratefulness and modesty towards their peers and audience. A different world, Hollywood in 1950, both good and bad, and so much fun revisiting with your eyes closed.