Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Favorites: Hitchcock's Lifeboat

I was going to do a bigger Hitchcock post on his use of limited locations and stage drama, but it's been a hectic week, and I am both too tired, and I also am reluctant to see one of the movies involved (Rope). So I'm giving myself another week on the overall subject.

But I want to talk to you about Lifeboat.

Lifeboat was made in 1944, from a novella by John Steinbeck, which he wrote specifically so it could be adapted for this picture. In spite of the fact that Steinbeck wasn't happy with the result, I really think this picture should get more attention in Hitchcock's body of work.

The action takes place entirely within a lifeboat, adrift in the Atlantic ocean after a German U-boat sinks a freighter -- and the freighter also sinks the U-boat.

This kind of scenario runs the risk of being a moody, personality play where nothing happens (except short punctuations of horror or excitement). Something you might tolerate for a bit in a bigger movie, because it gives you a breather. OR, it could be a gruelling, tense horror flick where people are being stalked by sharks.

But this is a story that moves. I'll talk more about the techniques that Hitchcock used next week, but first and foremost, Steinbeck gave him the tools of story. Characters with goals, and points of view, and an overall "big idea" for the story. Hitchcock, of course, was much more interested in emotions and weaknesses, and in this aspect, the Steinbeck touch and the Hitchcock touch add a lot of vibrancy to this story.

Steinbeck was not happy with this picture. In particular, he had written the Black seaman as a more rounded character, but his character was flattened and diluted to make him fit more with the prejudices of the times. There are subtle hints of what Steinbeck wrote, as we watch Joe maintain neutrality, and the hint that he does it out of self-preservation, not cowardice or obedience. But as you may notice that he isn't in the poster. (And there is at least on person who has way less screen time than he does in it.)

For the most part, though, I suspect that part of Steinbeck's objection was that he writes morality plays. Not that I'm criticizing this. He does excellent stories of the reality of existence. But they are external existence. But Hitchcock doesn't do morality. And the reality he latches onto is not only internal, but visceral. You can write about the choices people make in war time. What should be do with an enemy, and evil criminal? And you can explore the battle of virtue and selfishness and honor....

But Hitchcock goes after a completely irrational part of the brain. What happens when you've decided to be heroic or selfish, but in a blink, your "lizard" brain overrules you? What happens when you are driven to mob behavior, or you fall in love? What happens when evil is small and ordinary?

What resulted from these very different points of view is something that enhanced both. If the Big Issue of this story is War, Hitchcock gives us more of an answer to what war is about than Steinbeck. (And he did it at a time when war was supposed to be all about defeating the bad guys, not looking at your own weaknesses.)

Which isn't to say that this is a big intellectual story with A Message: it isn't. It's a dramatic, often funny, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes thought provoking, tale of a bunch of people with a very big problem on their hands. They are not helpless. They act. They do. Even when there is nothing they can do, they find something. (This is, I think, where Steinbeck and Hitchcock meet and meet well.)

This is also the movie with one of the most clever cameos Hitchcock has ever made.

Go seek this picture out. Give it a watch. Next week I'll talk more about the storytelling technique, along with that of other flicks.

See you in the funny papers.


Deniz Bevan said...

Wow! I'd never heard of this story before! Must add to wishlist...

The Daring Novelist said...

Hope you enjoy it, Deniz. There are a lot of strange little Hitchcock pictures out there, some deserving of more attention than others.

Another one I should probably talk about some day is "The Trouble With Harry" -- the adventures of an inconvenient corpse.