Monday, October 27, 2008


The other week my mother caught Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat playing on Boston's PBS channel, and when I went to my parents' house for my weekly visit the next day it was all she could talk about. Except, of course, she didn't want to say much about it until I saw it. So I moved it to the top of my Netflix queueueue so I could have it watched by the next time. I watched it maybe on Thursday and was pretty impressed, and then on Sunday I went to visit my parents again and my mother, not realizing that I'd seen it at this point, had rented it so we could watch it together. And the thing is, even though we'd both watched it within the last ten days, we both excitedly watched it again. And the second time it blew me away. It's an awesome movie.

Compositionally, it's brilliant, from its opening shot of the funnel* of the freight ship sinking into the water (the camera pans to be pointing straight down at the water after the rest of the boat has gone under, neatly avoiding revealing that they didn't build the rest of the ship), panning over (with one cleverly hidden cut that I noticed) a bunch of objects--Red Cross crates, tennis rackets, a New Yorker**, a deck of cards--and then a German soldier floating face down in the water. From there we pan up to reveal the, if you will, titular lifeboat floating at some distance. We can vaguely make out a figure in it. Finally we cut (there's been at least one cut already, probably more, but they've been unobtrusive; this one is definitive) and come inside the boat. We see that the figure is Tallulah Bankhead's Connie Porter, elaborately made up and swaddled in mink.

From that point on, we're almost entirely stuck on the lifeboat with the characters. Every once in a while a shot will originate slightly off of the boat, and there's one sequence where underwater shots are intercut with action above the surface, but that's it. Most directors would not be able to handle the visual limitations this imposes and would fail in one of two ways: either the look of the movie would get stale, repeating the same shots and camera angles and compositions over and over and over again, or there would be too much flashy variation, and by half an hour in we'd be sighing and saying, "Oh boy, where will he put the camera next." Hitchcock, of course, isn't most directors. His compositions (and Dorothy Spencer's editing) are consistently fresh and interesting, but never call unnecessary attention to themselves. Unless you're a big-time movie nerd like me who's always conscious of these things, you won't notice that there's even a problem to overcome.

I think my favorite of Hitchcock's techniques here is his tendency to include a whole bunch of people in one shot, but not necessarily the same people who are actively involved in a particular scene. So we might have a scene where Bankhead and John Hodiak are arguing, but on screen we see Bankhead facing the edge of the screen, Hume Cronyn at the tiller, Walter Slezak watching from the background, Canada Lee with his recorder, William Bendix lying half-conscious off to the side, and no Hodiak. The primary actors in a scene, even if they are on screen, aren't always in the foreground, and the people we're listening to are not necessarily the people we're looking at. The impact this had on me reminded me of the first time I saw Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying (one of my favorite movies) and was blown away and inspired by the possibilities of having obstructions in the line of sight between the camera and the characters***. If I ever get around to making movies, I'll be studying this one intently for the lessons I can draw from it, and it's even got my brain percolating on ways I could use analogous techniques in written fiction and in music.

The limited special effects, too, are very good; we never remember that the actors are in a fake boat constructed on a soundstage and that the ocean around them is fake. The best part is towards the end, when another small boat is blown out of the water near them. The miniatures, while obviously miniatures, are completely emotionally convincing, and the moment when the boat explodes conveys how truly horrifying the experience must have been far better than a more "realistic" modern effect in less skillful hands could have.

I have a lot to say about the moral implications of the story, too, but I think I've written enough for one blog entry. I may return to the movie later today or tomorrow, or I may not. Anyway, Lifeboat: highly recommended.

*That's what mumsy says it's called, anyway. I have no fucking idea. The big smokestack thing in the middle of a boat. Ship? Boat? I don't care.
**With that one cover that I swear must have been the cover of every issue of that magazine in the first half of the 20th century, the one with the guy in profile with the monocle who's probably someone famous or important but I don't know who.
***It doesn't sound all that interesting, I know, but if you've seen the movie you'll probably know what I'm talking about. And, by the way, if you haven't seen the movie, you really, really should.

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