Tawny ports and lifeboats

Following a certain hot woman's instructions, I will now write ignorant lines about the movies I am watching.

Last night I watched Lifeboat. Not a slack moment in the 96 minutes and made reportedly on the tiniest film set ever assembled.

A shipwreck's survivors are all chummy and chins-up until they take aboard a German survivor from the U-boat that sank their ship. John Hodiak opposes this vociferously while Tallulah Bankhead and the others argue for his rights as a human being and a prisoner of war. Shouldn't Americans live up to the standards that differentiate their great nation from that of the 'Nazi buzzards'? In a while this question becomes
academic moot since only the German seems to know how to navigate without benefit of a compass. But is he truly taking them on the right course? Caught in a storm they lose their limited supplies too. And so on and so forth. This is not 'thrilling' by any means but is definitely fun to watch. What dates the film is the fact that realism wore white gloves in Hitchcock's time. (Grace Kelly's crazy grating 'refayned' accent in
'Dial M for Murder' made me cheer on her murdering villainous husband in Dial M)  When the people in the lifeboat come apart at the seams, as shipwrecked people apparently do, they do it very quaintly.

I liked two elements in the film very much. Only familiar with Tallulah Bankhead's epigrams ('I've tried men, I've tried women,there's got to be something better.') I was thrilled to bits that to see that she was the real MccCoy. Perfect legs, eyes always pinned at half-mast, treacly voice to call everyone 'darlink' with and fabulous competence. And why Tallulah works beautifully in this ensemble is because Steinbeck's screenplay has provided her the perfect foil. John Hodiak. Thin-lipped, sexy, barechested,  and working off his blue collar contempt at her frills and furs, he  provides as much old-fashioned sexual violence as was possible in a lifeboat in 1940s cinema.

Apparently the German's character was much debated those days with Hitchcock was accused of being too sympathetic. If only!

What is far more interesting was one long shot in which someone fulminates about 'how you take in people and you are kind to them and then they betray you!' During  the entire length of this self-righteous speech, Hitchcock keeps the camera focused on a melancholy Canada Lee, the black sailor, (who is
made waiter, naive Christian, flute-player and pickpocket at various points in the film). A comment on racism? A dig at Canada Lee who refused to play silly black man and made Hitchcock change his
dialogues in the film ? Or a comment on the MccCarthy witchhunt that had accused Canada Lee of being a Communist the previous year?

 I don't know which one it was.  A  but a couple of years later, Canada Lee was officially blacklisted. He died, broken hearted, at the age of 45. Steinbeck himself wanted his credits removed from the film
because of Hitchcock's treatment of Lee's character.

In that September off
Isle aux Morts
the desultory sea
grew more so through the night

and made one think of
tawny ports,
as aspen tremblin'
in tomorrow's thorough light
and of Tallulah Bankhead
and Canada Lee
somewhere far-off, peaceful, sleeping
and done with acting
(Tragically Hip, Dire Wolf)


Newer Post Older Post Home