LIFEBOAT (1944): “Aren’t you going to kill me?”

LIFEBOAT (1944) – 20th Century Fox – ★★★1/2

B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tallulah Bankhead (Constance Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), John Hodiak (John Kovak),  Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Henry Hull (Charles Rittenhouse, Jr.), Walter Slezak (Captain Willi), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley).

Screenplay by Jo Swerling based on a treatment by John Steinbeck

Cinematography by Glen MacWilliams

Edited by Dorothy Spencer

Music by Hugo W. Friedhofer

Origins:   Although signed to a contract with David O. Selznick, Lifeboat would be the sixth consecutive film that Alfred Hitchcock would make on a loan-out to another studio.  This is the only film that Hitchcock ever made for 20th Century Fox.  It would run over schedule, over budget, and actually lost money on its initial run.   It has been an often overlooked film in the Hitchcock oeuvre that has finally begun to receive the acclaim it deserves in recent years.

The movie has a typical Hitchcock opening, a wordless montage of images that sets the scene perfectly.  First we see smoke emanating from a smokestack.  We then see that the smokestack belongs to a sinking ship.  Finally, various objects from the shipwreck drift through the screen.  First the objects are innocuous:  playing cards, a magazine, etc.  But finally a dead body drifts into screen.  The dead body is face down, and wearing a life vest that identifies him as the crewman of a German U-boat.  Eventually we see a woman alone on a lifeboat.   The woman is Constance Porter, played to perfection by Tallulah Bankhead.  It is no accident that she is introduced alone in the boat.  Constance is the central character in the film, as is the journey her character undertakes.

Eventually we end up with nine survivors on the boat.  They represent different types.  The boat is a microcosm of the world during wartime:  the industrialist, the socialist, the German U-boat survivor, etc.  The main plot line of the movie involves the way the survivors of the shipwreck will treat the German sailor.  Do they keep him alive?  Do they trust his navigational skills?  After all, it was his U-boat that sank their ship in the first place.   As is typical of a Hitchcock film, the audience is given information about the German (Captain Willi, played by Walter Slezak) before the other characters in the film.   When the others finally have this knowledge, what course will they take?  This is the ultimate point that Hitchcock wished to make with Lifeboat.  The Germans were implacable;  they had a sense of purpose, and the only way the Allies would beat them is to put all differences aside and unite with the same sense of purpose.   Lifeboat is more about characterization than it is plot, so I won’t dwell too much on plot specifics.

Each of the characters must undergo a transformation to reach the place where all can work together in unity.  By the film’s final act, the crew have survived a vicious storm together, and the population of the boat has decreased somewhat.  It is Constance that has to discard the most trappings.  This is achieved visually, as her personal belongings are stripped from her one by one throughout the film.  First her camera, her suitcase, her mink coat, her typewriter and ultimately her treasured bracelet are all lost overboard.  Finally stripped of these physical accoutrements representative of her place in society, Constance is left with the only things that really matter, and gives a rallying speech, uniting the members of the boat to work together.

Framing the image:  One of the technical aspects of the movie which most appealed to Hitchcock was the idea of filming an entire movie in a limited setting, and developing different camera set-ups and methods of framing to tell the story.  Throughout this article I have included a few examples of the many ingenious ways that Hitchcock framed the characters on the boat.   He used just about every conceivable set-up possible, without ever leaving the confines of the boat, and not once does the camera work seem artificial, or contrived.  This is a testament to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a technician.  I would venture to say that Hitchcock’s technical achievements on this film surpass the story itself.

Performance:  Although this movie is an ensemble piece, featuring nine people in one small space, Tallulah Bankhead is clearly the focal character.  As Hitchcock said:  The characterization by Tallulah Bankhead dominated the whole film.”   Bankhead was known more as a stage actress, and hadn’t been in any films for a decade when Hitchcock sought her out to be his leading lady.  She is the exact opposite of the “typical” Hitchcock leading lady, the blond, ethereal beauties such as Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman.  Bankhead is dark haired, passionate and sultry.  And she is absolutely perfect in this movie.  This is far and away the greatest performance of her career on film.

The actor Murray Alper was originally cast in the role of the injured sailor Gus.  Alper had appeared in the small but memorable role of a truck driver in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, and Hitch was so pleased with his performance that he offered him this very substantial role.  Unfortunately, Alper could not overcome his seasickness.   The boat was attached to a mechanism that kept it constantly rocking, and after three days of filming Alper was released.  His loss was William Bendix’s gain.   Bendix, an underrated character actor who had a prolific career until his early demise,  gives a career performance as Gus.  Bendix’s Gus is so likable, his portrayal so heartfelt.  He represents every American who didn’t make it home.

John Hodiak also gives the performance of a lifetime as Kovak.  Hodiak died at only 41 years of age, and never had another performance of this magnitude.  All of the other cast members give solid performances.   Walter Slezak is fantastic in the role of the German.  Hume Cronyn, an always dependable character actor,  is solid, even if his English accent is questionable.

This may be the most beautifully framed scene in the movie. Mary Anderson and Hume Cronyn are placed at different depths from the camera for this moment of emotional honesty, where they appear to be facing each other, even as they gaze past each other into the distance.

Source material:  Alfred Hitchcock hired John Steinbeck to pen an original treatment that would become the basis for the film.  Hitchcock had just had great luck working with a couple of established American authors (Dorothy Parker had helped pen the screenplay for Saboteur, and Thornton Wilder had co-written Shadow of a Doubt.)  His relationship with Steinbeck would not be so rosy.   Hitchcock describes the writing process for this film as follows:  I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks.  I didn’t care for what he had written at all….I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra.  When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless.  So I went over it again.

Steinbeck’s original treatment, or novella, has never been published, despite many entreaties to the Steinbeck estate to do so.  Steinbeck was so disgusted with the final product that he asked for his name to be removed from the film.  That was not to be.  20th Century Fox felt that his name might add some prestige, and refused to remove it.  Funnily enough, Steinbeck would receive an Oscar nomination for best original story.  One of the things that most troubled Steinbeck was Joe Spencer, whose characterization in the film was a far cry from the way Steinbeck had written him.

Canada Lee, actor:  When this film was released, there were virtually no significant roles given to people of color in Hollywood. If one looks at the roles of African American actors in Hitchcock movies, one sees the repeated stereotypes typical of the time:  railroad porters and servants.   There is even an unfortunate use of blackface in one of Hitchcock’s otherwise great British thrillers, Young and Innocent. Canada Lee’s character Joe Spencer is the first person of color to have a major speaking role in a Hitchcock movie.  And almost the only one, ever.  We would have to wait another quarter century (!), until Topaz and the amazing Harlem sequence featuring Roscoe Lee Browne.

Canada Lee was a pioneer for people of color on the screen.  He was a brilliant actor, whose talent transcended the stereotypes that he was often handed to play. Lee began his professional life as a boxer, but a detached retina forced him to seek out a new career.  Lee became a stage actor, who achieved acclaim on Broadway in the role of  Banquo in the Orson Welles’ directed all-black MacBeth in 1936.  Welles and Lee would reunite in 1941, to even further acclaim, in a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.  


Canada Lee as Banquo, in Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s production of MacBeth

Lee’s character Joe, as written in Lifeboat, is just another stereotype, beginning with his name.  Henry Hull’s wealthy industrial capitalist Rittenhouse keeps calling him “George.”  This was a term in common use at the time for railroad porters, no different than “boy” or “son”, and just as demeaning.  Joe finally corrects him, letting Rittenhouse and the audience know that he has a name, and an identity.  The screenplay pens Joe as a reformed pickpocket.  Why does the only person of color need to have a criminal background?  He is also the only one who espouses any spirituality, and he has a recorder tied around his neck, upon which he plays plaintive tunes in appropriate moments.  Lee elevates this character far above the written word, however.  He consciously made sure that there was never an element of the subservient black man in his roles.  He speaks with brilliant, restrained elocution, and a calm dignity that propels his character to a moral high ground.  In many ways, Joe is the only person on the lifeboat who maintains a moral equanimity throughout the movie.  Sidney Poitier would later cite Canada Lee as a major influence on him, someone who helped blaze a trail that would ultimately lead Poitier to the podium as a recipient of the first Best Acting Oscar for a man of color.

Academy Awards:  Lifeboat received three Oscar nominations:  Alfred Hitchcock for best director, John Steinbeck for best original story, and Glen MacWilliams for best black and white cinematography.  It lost in all categories.

Recurring players:  Heather Angel had appeared as Ethel the maid in Suspicion.  And Hume Cronyn had played neighbor Herbie Hawkins in Shadow of a Doubt.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s ingenious cameo comes just after the 25-minute mark.  Here is Hitch’s description:  That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up.  Usually I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean.  I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink…Finally, I hit on a good idea.  At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds.  So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for “before” and “after” pictures.  These photographs were used in a newspaper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them – and me- when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat.  The role was a great hit.  I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how the could get Reduco.

What Hume said:  In A Terrible Liar, Hume Cronyn’s memoir, he has some harsh words for co-star Tallulah Bankhead:  She was famous as a young woman for her looks, her scandalous behavior and above all for that low-pitched, throaty voice.  One of my reservations about the lady was that the voice was heard all too often.  She was a compulsive talker with a reputation for wit.  My own estimation was that this was based on the law of averages:  anyone who talked as much as Tallulah did was bound eventually to say something witty.  Unfortunately, I saw more of the termigant than the wit.

Ouch!  Then, three pages later, perhaps feeling guilty, Cronyn praises Bankhead’s professionalism:  She was on time, she knew her lines, she took Hitch’s direction beautifully, she always turned up to play a scene with the rest of us even though she herself might be off camera, and I never heard her complain about the working conditions.  These were pretty rough…we were frequently wet, cold, and covered with diesel oil.

About the film in general, Hume said it was an uncomfortable one to make, physically uncomfortable, because of its nature.  Nine of us huddled together in a lifeboat on frequently stormy seas for the best part of three months.  To call it close quarters would be an understatement.  No part of the film was actually shot at sea.  It was made either in the studio or in a tank on the back lot at Fox…The film posed technical difficulties that were meat and drink to Hitch.  He rejoiced in solving them.

Another fantastic framing of the lifeboat survivors.

What Hitch said:  In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said:  We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction.  So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination…Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit elsewhere, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.  I never let that camera get outside the boat, and there was no music at all; it was very rigorous.  

Definitive edition:  Kino Lorber released a blu-ray edition in March of 2017 as part of their Studio Classics line.  The blu-ray has very solid picture and sound;  not perfect, but definitely the best it has looked and sounded in a long time.  It includes two audio commentaries:  one with film historian Tim Lucas,  the other with Drew Casper, who holds the title of Hitchcock professor for the study of American film at USC.  Lucas’ commentary is full of interesting story about the making of the film.  I must confess that Drew Casper’s dry professorial air, and very distinct locution get on my nerves, although one can definitely learn from listening to his commentary.  Also included is a twenty minute making-of documentary, an eleven minute audio clip from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and a blu-ray re-release trailer.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) : “We’re no ordinary uncle and niece.”

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) – Universal Studios – Rating: ★★★★½

B&W – 106 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal Cast:  Teresa Wright (Charlotte “Charlie” Newton), Joseph Cotten (Charlie Oakley), MacDonald Carey (Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton).

Produced by Jack H. Skirball

Written by Thornton Wilder & Alma Reville & Sally Benson, from a story by Gordon McDonell

 Director of Photography:  Joseph A. Valentine

 Film Editing:  Milton Carruth

 Original music:  Dmitri Tiomkin

Charles Oakley lies on his bed in a nondescript boardinghouse.  He is a picture of ennui, and everything about him suggests carelessness, from the recumbent way he smokes his cigar to the money scattered on the floor.  He stirs from his lassitude when the landlady informs him that two gentlemen asked about him;  he then gathers his things and leaves, giving the “gentlemen” the slip.  Suddenly a man of determination, he sends a telegram to his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them of his intention to visit.

Dissolve to Santa Rosa, a picturesque American town.  Oakley’s niece, “Charlie”, is lying on her bed, in much the same state as her uncle.  She is in the dumps, and wants to do something to shake up the family.  Suddenly an idea occurs to her, and she rushes to the telegraph office to invite her Uncle Charlie to visit.  She arrives just in time to receive the telegram from her uncle announcing his impending arrival.  It’s almost as if they were reading each other’s minds, speculates Charlie.   

Soon thereafter Uncle Charlie arrives, descending from the train under a plume of dark smoke that presages the arrival of something sinister in sleepy Santa Rosa.  At first the family is delighted to see him, from sister Emma Newton, to brother-in-law Joseph and the three children.  Uncle Charlie brings fine gifts for everyone, including an emerald ring for his favorite niece, his namesake Charlie.  The ring inexplicably has in inscription, initials that Uncle Charlie insists were not put there by him.  She does not care, saying that makes the ring more precious, because somebody happy had worn it before her.

Two men arrive at the Newton home who claim to be conducting a survey.  They wish to ask questions of the household and take photographs.  Uncle Charlie is evasive, refusing to be involved and bordering on rudeness when he encounters the two men in the home.  Could these be the same “gentlemen” who were inquiring after Charlie at his boardinghouse?  Soon enough niece Charlie learns from one of the men that they are police, and are indeed on the trail of her uncle, who may be involved in some pretty nasty crimes, namely the murder of several widows and the theft of their money.  Charlie does not want her mother to know, for it would break her heart.  She begins an investigation of her own, and soon discovers the answer to the question of her uncle’s guilt or innocence.   This portion of the story involves a cat-and-mouse interplay between uncle and niece, with the rest of the family ignorant of the  situation and implications.  At the same time Charlie begins an awkward romance with the detective who had tipped her to her uncle’s situation.

The contest of wills between the two Charlies seems to be won by niece Charlie, and her uncle agrees to leave Santa Rosa.  On the train that will take him away, he tries to silence his niece’s suspicions, with deadly consequences.

Performance:  This is arguably one of the best casts in any Hitchcock film, from top to bottom.  Joseph Cotten is perfect as Uncle Charlie, creating one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains.  Teresa Wright as niece Charlie has the most difficult part in the movie, as her character undergoes a dramatic transformation when she learns several truths about her uncle, and the world.   Henry Travers, who will forever be known to movie lovers as Clarence the angel in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, is pleasant and likeable as the Newton family patriarch.  His primary job is to provide occasional comic relief.  But the most memorable, and most moving performance in the film belongs to Patricia Collinge as Uncle Charlie’s sister Emma.  Emma’s fondness for her younger brother is palpable, as is her fondness for childhood recollections.  If there is one performance that is not entirely perfect it is that of MacDonald Carey as Detective Graham.  He seems out-of-place in some of his onscreen interplay.

Writing:  Thornton Wilder, who wrote the quintessential American idyll Our Town, was the principle screenwriter.  Hitchcock charged Wilder with creating another slice of small-town American life, and introducing menace into it.  And Wilder’s writing is pitch perfect. His tone ranges from the charming and occasionally comic portrait of the Newton family, to Uncle Charlie’s almost shockingly dark monologues about modern big-city life.  Hitchcock was so impressed that he gave Wilder a special acknowledgment in the opening credits, in addition to his screenwriting credit.

The doppelgänger effect:  The central relationship in this movie is that of the two Charlies, uncle and niece.  The idea of the characters as doubles appears frequently.  First as they both appear sprawled on a bed in their respective opening scenes.  Later in several lines of dialogue.  Teresa Wright as Charlie tells her uncle “We’re sort of like twins, don’t you see?”Later Uncle Charlie accosts his niece outside a bar called “Til Two”, finally taking her inside.  There are no overt incestuous signals in this relationship, but it is a very odd relationship for an uncle and niece.  She gazes at him longingly in their opening scenes together, and when she walks through town with him, arm in arm, she is delighted when her friends look at him in awe, almost as if she wants them to think he is her beau.  What Uncle Charlie doesn’t foresee is that his niece has an inner mettle that has remained hidden, and it only comes to the forefront as she is forced to confront him.  They are indeed very much alike, and it is this that allows her to best him in their game of wits.

“Shadow of a Doubt” house as it appears today, Santa Rosa, CA, photo by author.

The precocious girl:  Women in Hitchcock movies are often the dominant partner in a relationship.  They are often more intelligent and resourceful than their male counterpart.  This also applies to young girls.  In this film, the younger daughter Ann Newton, (played delightfully by Edna May Wonacott) is wise beyond her years.  She is constantly reading and repeating things she has learned in her books.  She is also the only member of the Newton family that is never taken in by Uncle Charlie.  She is suspicious of him from the first moment she lays eyes on him, and although she never learns the nature of his crimes, she is not fooled.  Wonacott gives the best performance by a child in the entire Hitchcock canon, in my opinion.  Meanwhile the young boy Roger (played by Charles Bates) is a typical boy child, who does have one great reaction shot, played for comic effect, when Patricia Collinge says the youngest child is always spoiled.

Merry widow waltz:  This waltz plays over the opening credits, along with footage of waltzing couples, which looks like stock footage but Hitchcock said he filmed specifically.  The waltz features prominently in a dinner table scene, and Hitchcock uses the dancing couples footage as a transitional shot at a couple of key moments in the film.  This is a very interesting expressionistic touch.

Dark humor:  Hume Cronyn provides some dark humor as Herbie Hawkins, friend to Joe Newton.  Hawkins and Newton read whodunits, and discuss the best way to kill each other, not realizing that they are only a few feet away from someone with practical experience!  There is also perhaps a subtle indication that Herbie would like to do away with his mother, yet another charming mother/son relationship.

Emma Newton as Emma Hitchcock:  Alfred Hitchcock’s mother Emma passed away during production of this film.  There is much speculation that the character of Emma Newton (the name can be no coincidence) was inspired in part by the director’s own mother.  Certainly Emma Newton, as played so wonderfully by Patricia Collinge, is allowed a sentimentality that is seldom if ever seen in Hitchcock films.   Her emotional response to the news that her brother will be leaving is so genuine, that it almost moves the viewer to tears, particularly because of the things we know about her brother Charlie that she does not.

What Joe said:  Joseph Cotten, in his 1987 autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, said of this film that “it is certainly mentioned to me as often as Citizen Kane and The Third Man.”  He also complimented Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, saying “I cannot remember any shooting script that suffered so few alterations during production.  All the actors agreed that the author’s words were not only easy to learn, but a pleasure to speak.”

Academy awards:  Gordon McDonell received a nomination in the now defunct “Best Writing, Original Story” category.

Recurring players:  Joseph Cotten would star later in Under CapricornHume Cronyn would appear in Hitchcock’s next film, LifeboatWallace Ford would turn up in Spellbound, as would Irving Bacon. Frances Carson appeared in Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur.  Edward Fielding was also in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound.  Constance Purdy also appeared in Spellbound.   Byron Shores was in Saboteur.   And Eily Malyon, the perfect spinsterish librarian, had earlier played the perfect spinsterish hotel desk clerk in Foreign Correspondent. 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about 16:26.  He is seen from a right rear profile as a passenger on the train.  He is playing cards with a doctor and his wife, and the camera shows that his hand is the entire suit of spades!


Legacy:  Universal remade this movie in 1958, as a noirish B-movie called Step Down to Terror.  It was also remade for TV in 1991, with Mark Harmon in the Uncle Charlie role.

Hitchcock moment:   For the most part this movie was shot in a very straightforward manner, with Hitchcock’s usual economy of shots.  The shot in the library where the camera pulls back from a close-up looking over Teresa Wright’s shoulder, high up to the ceiling, is impressive.  Production designer Bob Boyle said that Hitchcock wanted the camera movement to be almost like a gasp, or sudden intake of breath.  There is also the shot of Teresa Wright coming downstairs with her hand on the bannister, as the camera slowly zooms in on her hand, and the emerald ring plainly visible on it.

What Hitch said:  Numerous critics say that this was Hitchcock’s favorite among his own films.  His daughter Patricia states it unequivocally:  “It was my father’s favorite picture.”  One would think she would know.   When pressed on this point by Truffaut, Hitchcock answered:  “I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impression, it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about.”  (In referring to the “plausibles” Hitchcock was talking about people who dismissed the plots of his films because they were not plausible).  “But that impression is also due to my very pleasant memories of working on it with Thornton Wilder.”

Definitive edition:   The best edition of this movie available for purchase today is Universal’s 2012 blu-ray release, (also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set).  The picture quality is not quite as sharp as the blu-ray remaster of Saboteur, being a little grainy at times, but it still looks spectacular for a movie that is over 70 years old.   The audio track (2-channel mono) also sounds quite good.  Extra features include a 35-minute making-of documentary, which has interview footage with Hume Cronyn, Teresa Wright, Patricia Hitchcock, Robert Boyle, and Peter Bogdanovich.  Also included are production drawings, production photographs, and the original theatrical trailer.