Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.

Pushover (1954) starring Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Philip Carey, & E.G. Marshall

This film noir is considered a kind of sequel- in spirit- to Double Indemnity. Both movies feature blonde femme fatales, temptation, and (of course) the lure of easy money. It opens w/ a bank heist where over $200,000 is stolen by a pair of armed men in plain clothes. After a late movie, Lona McLane (Kim Novak- just 20 y.o. in her first role), can’t start her car. She gets help from Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray), who was also alone at the movies. After her car is taken to a local garage, Lona decides to go home w/ Paul, and have an affair. A few days later, Paul reports to his boss’ office- we learn that he’s an undercover police detective! In order to catch the man who planned the robbery, Paul has been keeping track of his girlfriend- Lona.

The boss, Lt. Eckstrom, is played by E.G. Marshall- a face recognizable to movie fans of several generations. He had a long/successful career as a character actor, incl. as a juror in 12 Angry Men (w/ Henry Fonda) and the billionaire philanthropist in Absolute Power (w/ Clint Eastwood). Paul’s younger partner in the stakeout is Rick McAllister, played by a tall/deep-voiced actor named Philip Carey. He later became known as Asa Buchanan- patriarch of one of the families on the soap opera One Life to Live. Wow, I never knew he was so handsome as a young man! After a few moments, I recognized his name and that voice.

Rick (re: Lona): New car, mink coat, no clocks in the joint… probably the story of her life.

Paul: You just don’t like women, Rick.

Rick: What keeps you single?

Paul: Maybe I like ’em too much.

Rick: I’ve seen all kinds since we joined the force… B-girls, hustlers, blackmailers, shoplifters, drunks. You know, I think I’d still be married if I could find a half-honest woman. Must be a few of ’em around.

Paul: Watch yourself! Those few might just be smarter!

It doesn’t take Lona too long to discover that Paul is a cop; she’s mad and says they are through. Paul, Rick, and another cop stakeout Lona’s apt, waiting for her man to call or (maybe) visit. During the lull times, Rick watches Lona’s neighbor through his binoculars. This is Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone), a nurse who is always busy and in a cheerful mood.

MacMurray does a fine job as a good, but weary, middle-aged guy who is emotionally vulnerable once he meets Novak. The femme fatale is not a master manipulator; she resents being the trophy of a criminal. Is their hope to their relationship? Rick and Ann seem to almost live in a separate world; their relationship starts off shady, but grows hopeful once you see their chemistry. The atmosphere created in this movie also keeps you interested. The filmmakers are good at setting the mood; we see L.A. mostly at night when there are shadows, streets lit by large lamps, and a few rooftop scenes. This isn’t any fresh territory for Hollywood, but I stayed interested, wondering how far Paul would go.

The Woman in the Window (1944) & Scarlet Street (1945) starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, & Dan Duryea

These two films by Fritz Lang star the multi-faceted Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett (perhaps best known as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend), and character actor Dan Duryea. Lang was a half-Jewish refugee from Austria who fled the Nazis in the mid-1930s. Growing up w/ German cinema, Lang was “concerned w/ symbolism and good and evil existing w/in one character” (as Barbara Bordwell McGrew, former film instructor at Burlington College explained). Double Indemnity (where Edward G. Robinson played a fine supporting role), Laura, Murder, My Sweet, and The Phantom Lady were all successful noir films released in 1944. “This led the way for more dark, mature stories to be told in Hollywood,” Eddie Muller (host of Noir Alley on TCM) commented.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Mild-mannered Gotham College professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) and his two close friends (a district attorney and a medical doctor) become obsessed with the portrait of a woman in the window beside their men’s club. After dinner and drinks at the club, his friends head off to a burlesque show. Wanley decides to read for a while and seems to doze off. Late that night, he meets the woman, Alice Reed (Bennett), while admiring her portrait, and ends up in her apartment. While they chat and drink champagne, a man bursts in and misinterprets the situation. This intruder lunges at the professor and a fight ensues where the other man is killed. In order to protect his reputation, Wanley agrees to dump the body and help cover up the killing.

The Woman in the Window is considered to be one of the most significant movies in the film noir genre. It’s a film has many key noir ingredients: man meets woman and finds his life turned upside down, shady characters, a killing, shadows and darkness, and an atmosphere heavy w/ suspense. At its core, the film is about the dangers of stepping out of one’s normal life. The cast is very strong; Robinson, Bennett and Duryea re-team with Lang the following year. As on reviewer on IMDB noted: “The Woman in the Window seems to say that evil only lives when people look hard enough for it – practically a ‘film noir’ rebuttal.” The ending (which some liked, yet modern audiences may think a bit cheesy) had to be that way b/c of the Production Codes of that time.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Chris Cross (Robinson) is a bank cashier who is given a gold watch by his boss for 25 years of honest service. Chris is kind of an Everyman who is respected by his peers, yet has a boring life w/ his loud/shrewish wife in Brooklyn. Chris has a love of beauty and painting (which he does on Sundays). One rainy late night, he sees a young, beautiful woman being beaten by a man on the street in Greenwich Village. He stops the villain and saves this (supposed) damsel in distress. In no time, he falls desperately in love w/ this woman- a struggling actress named Katherine March (Bennett). Kitty (her nickname) gets to know more about his inner life and starts making demands (w/ tears, saying how she is so poor). As Chris talks re: his love of art on their dates, Kitty assumes that he is wealthy.

According to Ben Mankiewicz on TCM, when first released, local censor boards in New York, Milwaukee and Atlanta banned this film entirely, for being “licentious, profane, obscure, and contrary to the good order of the community.” Though this may seem tame to (modern) audiences, there are themes of dominance and submission in this film. Chris’ wife, Adele, bosses him around at every turn. On the other hand, Kitty, allows herself to be abused (emotionally and physically) by her fiance- Johnny Prince (Duryea). Her friend/roommate, Millie, keeps telling Kitty that he is no good, but she doesn’t listen. In her mind, this is “love” and Millie “doesn’t understand.”

Scarlet Street is compelling and unpredictable; Lang truly knows how to keep the audience hooked, even in quiet moments. “The film is full of irony throughout (ironically made by a non-American),” as one reviewer wrote on IMDB. The audience is never able to guess what’s around the corner. The movie is packed with stand out moments, but the ending is terrific. The atmosphere that Lang creates draws you in, as do the fine actors (esp. Robinson as the anti-hero).

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!

Blinded by the Light (2019) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha (a British Asian Sikh journo turned filmmaker) made a big splash w/ the 2002 indie film, Bend it Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra (a theater actress who US audiences watched on ER) and a teen Keira Knightley (who became a worldwide success). At first, Chadha (now a mom of twins w/ her writing partner/husband Paul Mayeda Berges), felt that Blinded was too similar to her previous film. After Brexit happened, she was determined to tell the story (based on the life of a journo of Pakistani/Muslim heritage Sarfraz Manzoor). The movie was approved by Bruce Springsteen two years ago; after a private screening, The Boss told Chadha: “I love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a 16 y.o. living in ’80s Luton, England; it’s not a good time to be Pakistani, Muslim, or a dreamer who wants more than what’s planned by his parents. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The National Front (NF) supporters spray hateful graffiti on mosques and homes, including in Javed’s working-class neighborhood. Though he (secretly) wants to be a writer, his immigrant father- Malik (Kulvinder Ghir from Goodness Gracious Me)- wants him to be a doctor, engineer, or estate agent. Jobs are scarce in this town; money is tight in the family; the parents are anxious re: upcoming wedding of Javed’s older sister. Javed and his mom give their earnings to Malik; this was a surprise to many people in my screening.

Javed has been keeping journals for many years; he also writes songs for his best friend/neighbor Matt’s (Dean Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) band. Things start to change between the long-time pals when Matt gets his first girlfriend and Javed goes into the sixth form (in preparation for university). Javed’s new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), sees potential in his work. She explains that he has an unique voice. Another British Asian kid in school, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen. Roops is based on the (real-life) best friend of Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Javed falls in love w/ this American rock music (which was fading from popularity- FYI), feeling that Bruce is singing about his life!

Suddenly, Javed’s father is laid off from the factory job he’s had for 16 years. From the nightly news clips, we see that many people in factory/industrial towns are out of work. His mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), has to take in more sewing to support the family; she works well into the night w/o complaint. Even Javed tries to go back to the bread factory where we worked the last summer, but there are no jobs. About half-way through the film, we get a (touching/sensitive) scene between Malik and Noor. I don’t think another filmmaker would have done it as well as Chadha. The parents would’ve remained more stereotypical, one-note, and unchanging. One critic esp. liked how they showed how much Malik cared for his fellow Pakistanis and mosque.

Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), doesn’t understand why he’s so into Springsteen. We later learn that Shazia has a bit of a rebellious side also; she goes to “daytimers” (parties featuring bhangra music w/ fellow British Asian students). I had never heard of these events before- they look fun! Though this story is centered on a boy and his dad, it’s great to see a bit into a girl’s life.

One of the girl’s in Javed’s English class, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who is impressed by his writing and personality. We eventually learn that she’s from a wealthy Tory (politically conservative) family. Her parents comment that Eliza dates boys who are “controversial” in the scene where Javed goes to their house. Aside from his obsession w/ Bruce, Javed is “a good, straight arrow kid” (as a film critic noted), so there isn’t much for her parents to worry about.

There is more to this (optimistic) story; you should check it out if it’s playing nearby. It doesn’t shy away from (in your face; period accurate) racism. FYI: People in my screening were shocked by a few scenes. A desi man in my audience commented after the film: “I grew up in Birmingham; it’s pretty accurate.” There is lot to like about this film, but it’s not perfect. The musical scenes may put some people off; a few viewers in my audience and critics considered them “cheesy” or “cringey.” They didn’t always fit well w/in the story; I was expecting them to be more naturalistic. FYI: 19 different Springsteen songs were featured through the film- WOW!