What’s a Christian Hipster supposed to do when faced with the master of suspense telling a story about 10 people stranded together at sea? Answer: Consider race relations, outrageous personalities, and potential sermon illustrations.
Lifeboat (1944). With Tallulah Bankhead and John Hodiak. Based on a story by John Steinbeck. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Reasons For Hipsters To Like This Movie:
- Countless Sermon/Devos/Come-to-Jesus-talk Illustrations
A baseball team plus, with totally different socio-economic backgrounds, stuck in a confined space, hoping for rescue, trying to survive by getting along, and to survive the very idea of getting along? Man, that’s a metaphor just waiting for an application!
So let’s say you’re a Christian Hipster working as a summer camp counselor. “Hey,” you say to the kid hoarding the compass, “secrets aren’t cool. Let me tell you a story about this German guy who may or may not be a captain, and these other people who just got stranded on the boat that guy sank…”
Or let’s say your church is having a summer team-building event on a lake, and you’ve been put in charge of worship time around the campfire, and a short message about what it means to be the modern church. What better illustration than a boat full of people trying to survive in dangerous waters?
Or let’s say things get political in your small group, and it falls on you to bring everyone together. You now have the perfect metaphor to show how widely different personalities can all come together. Different classes? We can deal with it, throw the typewriter overboard. Physical hardships? See each other through. Race relation? Um, well, maybe this movie isn’t the best illustration there…
2. Delicious Personalities
Film historical Drew Casper called Tallulah Bankhead (who plays the socially elite journalist Connie Porter) and Hitch’s relationship, “outrageous personalities, kindred spirits.” Bankhead was star of stage, screen, and society column. Her persona is basically what Bette Davis played in half her films (Davis also played in the film versions of several stories Bankhead was in on Broadway, like her roles in The Little Foxes and Dark Victory.) Bankhead was a huge pop culture entity, and Hitch’s only choice for the leading role.
The other delicious personality associated with the film is John Steinbeck. Reportedly, Hitchcock requested the story. Steinbeck wrote it as a novella. His political views were different enough from Hitch’s that the script was treated by several other writers (including Alma and Ben Hecht) and the ending was totally rewritten. But the class divisions, and the earnestness of the situation, are very much of the great American writer’s ilk. It’s got a decidedly Steinbeckian feel.
3. So, how does one shoot a film that takes place entirely in a lifeboat?
That’s the kind of challenge Alfred Hitchcock eats for breakfast. Especially since he didn’t eat eggs. (Hitch trivia: he was scared of them. See more in Bee Wilson’s story for the London Telegraph).
Filming took place on sound stages, with several iterations of the boat for use in different lengths of shots. The crew also utilized rear projection, and the studio’s (the film was made at 20th Century Fox, as Hitch was still under contract) massive water tank. The shots in the tank have plenty of fog (dry ice and wind machines) to help blur the horizon.
Notice also how editing still builds suspense. Especially watch close ups, reaction shots, and camera angles. How do the characters regard each other? Who do or don’t they trust, and when? The truth is always revealed in close up, and even in a cramped space, when someone is isolated in the frame, they are “alone” with the audience. Close up of Willie as he rows, singing. Close up of Gus (William Bendix) (Willie’s POV) sleeping. Medium shot of Willie, doing something with the oar. Splash. The audience puts things together and thinks, “Wait, what happened?” Then audiences, if they are not already actively paying attention, are even more invested, trying to figure out what happened and what’s going to happen next.
Things For Hipsters To Note:
1. Best Ironic Line:
Mr Rittenhouse (Henry Hull): “Well, we’re all in the same boat!”
2. Initial Steinbeckian Social Commentary:
The relationship of Connie (Bankhead) to both Kovac (John Hodiak, the very Steinbecky working class everyman character) and Willie. As a journalist, she seems most interested in getting the good story (in the beginning of the film she is chastised by Kovac for filming everything instead of helping). She’s the only one who speaks German, and therefore becomes the translator for Willie (even though, as we later learn, he speaks English).
She’s also much more sympathetic to him than anyone else. But she and Kovac have one of those she’s-too-elite-for-him-but-he-brings-her-down-to-earth/he’s-not-in-her-intellectual-class-but-she-recognizes-his-street-smarts kinds of relationships that Hollywood just adores.
In fact, all of the characters have their place in the social commentary line up, making the boat a microcosm that balances gender/white ethnicity/social class lines, if not all race lines. And it’s a good ensemble, with excellent performances and memorable characters all around.
3. Hitch’s Brilliant Cameo
Well, how does one put the hard-to-miss Hitch into this movie? Be advised, if you like finding the cameos yourself, I’m about to give away the best one Hitch ever had:
He’s an ad on the newspaper. Hitch had gone on a crash diet, so the pics are real, although the drug advertised is fictitious.
Problematic Things About This Movie Christian Hipsters Would Love To Comment On:
1. Tallulah Bankhead
Bankhead’s persona can be fascinating and hilarious. But to quote George Takei, oh myyyy. According to one famous story about the production, (and you know there had to be tons of them with both Hitch and Tallulah in close quarters. There are a boatload–not just a lifeboat, too–of crazy Tallulah stories. My favorite goes something like: Tallulah sits in a pew for a wedding. The alter boy goes down the aisle, swinging the incense censer. Tallulah says, “I love your dress, darling, but your purse is on fire.”) Tallulah was pretty adverse to wearing undergarments. She had to climb a tall ladder to get into the set–the boat, often in a tank, and would give the crew, well, quite a show. When Hitch was approached about it he said, “I don’t know if that’s a problem for costume, makeup, or hairdressing.”
Bankhead was outspoken, sure, and the ultimate girl about town. But she was also pretty self destructive. So the problematic element is not so much her outlandish behavior, but its unhealthy elements, like, you know, venerial disease and drug and alcohol abuse…
2. Race Relations
There’s one black guy on the boat. (Mmmm, a token black man is not a good sign.) His name is Joe (cliche) he’s put in charge of food rations (the cook–even more cliche) he’s the boat’s musician, carrying a pipe flute (now it’s a stereotype) and he’s a former pickpocket, apparently, because the other crew members know he’s capable and convince him to pick Willie’s pocket for the compass (now it’s a really painful stereotype).
Canada Lee (the actor who plays Joe) was best known for roles in this film and Cry, the Beloved Country, and many stage roles. Steinbeck hated this treatment in the final film, even though Lee was given the opportunity to improv all of his lines to make them less ridiculous (otherwise, would it have included a “yassuh”?).
Hitch’s films in general are not exactly progressive when it comes to race. And although Lifeboat deals with social groups in interesting ways, and with European descent ethnicities in a more even way, especially during the war, it’s a pretty awful portrayal of an African American man. Hitch, lovable genius that he was, was not to be emulated when it came to depictions of both women and historically excluded groups. All his protagonists, and to be fair, all his antagonists, are White Anglo-Saxon.
3. The Moral Quagmire of Dead Babies, Suicide, Euthenasia, and Murder
True, Germans were the enemy, and there was a war on, but should they shoot someone as ships are sinking? It’s the moral question that drives the film, and there’s no clear answer. That’s problematic in potentially a good way, as it forces us Christian-Hipster-postmodern types to think about these complicated things in complicated ways. The idea, too, of Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel) clutching the dead baby she was trying to take home to her husband, and her suicide after the baby is gone remind us in that problematic way that the horrors of war are all to real. Not fun, but with a very decided pill of truth.
During WWII, with German Uboats terrorizing the Atlantic, the situation of this film was all too possible. A mid-war audience may not have wanted to see it, but may have also needed the recognition. At the time, Hollywood was selling a lot of heart-warming and affirming action/romances. But viewers were also trying to deal with the difficult truth of their lives. The most notable proof of this May be the 1946 Oscar being awarded to The Best Years Of Our Lives(a Billy Wilder film about soldiers learning how to be civilians) instead of It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra’s now-a-Christmas-standard that was too psychologically dark and plotwise “Capracorny”).
The politics of the film, too, were problematic for contemporary audiences. Hitch was pretty outspoken in his support of the Allies (his mother was still in Britain), but the film doesn’t vilify the Germans. Although Willie is not the most helpful character (hiding the compass, throwing them off course, killing Gus), frankly, everybody on the boat has their faults. As critic Dan Callahan said in a review for Slant, “Rittenhouse professes that he’s broken up about becoming part of a lynch mob, but he should be more broken up about the traits he shares with Willy. No one gets off here; everyone is guilty. Finally, Joe looks up to God for guidance, and Hitchcock, sensibly enough, is all for this. If you look at the world as deeply as Hitchcock does, religion really is your only answer. Like so many of his movies, Lifeboat is a deeply Catholic work.”
Everybody is guilty. Now take that to your devos session and use it well.