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In 1943, he took on a project called Lifeboat, a story originally based on an unpublished novella by John Steinbeck.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.

The Third Man

Talkie of the Week: The Third Man

UK 1949, 104 minutes, black & white, British Lion Films. Director: Carol Reed, Written by Graham Greene, Based on a story by Graham Greene, Music by Anton Karas. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard

Plot summary: Western pulp writer Holly Martins has arrived in Vienna to meet up with his friend Harry Lime who was found dead shortly before his arrival. By trying to find out what happened to Harry, Martins is being sucked into a spiral of lies and deceit in a city that’s divided by mayhem and the emerging cold war.

Review: Who doesn’t know it, the famous score from The Third Man written and played by Anton Karas on his zither?! A musical theme that’s both entertaining and haunting. One of those famous songs that will never leave you after you’ve seen the movie, after the music drew you deep into the plot and followed you all the way through, from beginning to end. It’s the kind of theme that adds suspense to a story that’s already thrilling. It supports a brilliant cast of actors who know better than only to entertain. They leave us in the dark about their characters, their motivation and fate like they only did in film noir when a melancholy end was still enticing and a happy end not a necessity.

I suppose it would be interesting to watch The Third Man without its score. I must admit I’ve never tried to divide the heart from the soul, because, after all, isn’t that what a good score is all about?! It breathes life into a film to make it make it work beyond the pictures and the words. To make it memorable. I feel that’s how it is with most great films – they have that lasting effect on you because every detail was carefully composed: the cast of actors, the storyline, cinematography and then the music. Together they create a mood, a look, something you will take with you and remember. And in the case of The Third Man, it all starts when that zither starts to play and the credits begin. You are being sucked into the story like Holly Martins is sucked into post-war Vienna and the untimely demise of his friend.

We get a glimpse of antebellum Europe, of its history and the people who have survived murder and mayhem, who are tired of questions and betrayal. We meet people who are adapting to their new situation, who have learned to overcome a war and want to forget. We also meet our American hero who doesn’t fit in. Who, like us, doesn’t belong into this world and is trying to understand it. Who is fascinated by a city in a state of division, who is unwilling to accept the boundaries of that reality.

The Third Man will surprise you in many ways. It is clever, exciting and well played. There is also something about the movie I cannot explain. It’s one of those classics people will recommend to you and you may find yourself reluctant to see the reasons for all the praise. All I can say is this: give The Third Man a chance and have a look at it from a fresh, untainted perspective and you may find a gem you keep whistling the score of all day.

Available on DVD and Netflix. The 3rd Man trailer