Saturday, January 11, 2014

Survival in the North Atlantic

It would be quite a challenge for a modern movie director to make a film like "Lifeboat," the Alfred Hitchcock drama that made its debut 70 years ago today.

It isn't that disaster movies are so rare. They aren't. But disaster movies like "Lifeboat" — which require a good story and great acting in the absence of splashy special effects — are quite rare, if not nonexistent, today.

Hitchcock had been playing it safe, I suppose, in the years before "Lifeboat." He had made some of his best movies in the preceding years, but they were mostly melodramas, not quite as thrilling as the thrillers he produced later in his career. In fact, many of his projects could be described as routine.

Apparently, he decided to stretch his creative wings with "Lifeboat."

"Lifeboat" was a real challenge for Hitchcock. It was really his first movie to be set entirely in a confined space. He revisited that style in a couple of movies a decade later — "Rear Window" and "Dial M For Murder."

In "Lifeboat," a diverse group of people found themselves together in a lifeboat in the North Atlantic after their ship and a U–boat sank each other, and they were forced to work with each other to achieve a mutual objective — survival.

The group included mostly British and Americans, but there was one German survivor who was pulled into the boat. That led to some remarkable discussions ...

For example, at one point, it was suggested that the German should be thrown overboard and allowed to die. But, after a spirited argument, the German (who was later revealed to have been the captain of the U–boat), was allowed to stay on the boat.

One could hardly imagine a more diverse cross–section of passengers in a cramped lifeboat — but Hitchcock's exploration of the characters made for a gripping story.

Hitchcock was known for his cameo appearances in his films. Usually he appeared briefly and casually as a very minor character, but a movie like "Lifeboat" presented him with some unusual problems.

Given the fact that "Lifeboat" was set at sea, Hitchcock couldn't exactly walk by as he did in other films. But he could be seen as the before and after photos in a newspaper ad for a weight–reduction project.

Hitchcock's greatest influence in the film could be seen in the performances he drew from his cast. Tallulah Bankhead gave what may have been her best performance as a cynical columnist, but she didn't outshine her co–stars, like William Bendix and Hume Cronyn.

If you've never seen "Lifeboat," you should — and you will have your opportunity a week from today. Turner Classic Movies will be showing it next Saturday at 7 p.m. (Central).