Thursday, July 3, 2008

LIFEBOAT (20th Century-Fox 1944) Fox Home Video

At Alfred Hitchcock behest, the director was loaned out by David O. Selznick to 20th Century-Fox for an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Lifeboat (1944). The film became the first of Hitchcock’s attempts at shooting an entire movie within the confided space of a single set. In this case, that set is a lifeboat.

The story concerns a small group of survivors attempting to keep body and soul together after their luxury liner has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. The survivor’s list includes feisty reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), mistrustful, John Kovak (John Hodiak), spirited businessman, Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), loyal nurse, Alice Mackenzie (Mary Anderson), proud cook, George Spencer (Canada Lee), lumbering Gus Smith (William Bendix) and trusting Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn).

Along the way this group fish out the captain of the U-boat that sunk them, Willy (Walter Slezak). Although Willy first presents himself as grateful and sympathetic – he slowly begins to despise this lot of Americans as his sworn enemies and thereafter plots how to systematically do away with them one by one. After amputating Gus’s infected leg in order to save his life, Willy waits until the rest of the survivors have fallen asleep before sadistically pushing the cripple overboard.

Claiming that Gus’s death was accidental, Willy next lies about their whereabouts. He is not sailing them toward an American port in Bermuda as planned, but to a German rescue vessel where he will be saved, but the others most likely slaughtered or sent to a concentration camp. Realizing what Willy is up to, Charles incites the rest of the crew to mutiny. They do, killing Willy before the Axis rescue ship is reached. A battle breaks out between the German ship rapidly gaining on them and an American war cruiser looming on the horizon. The German ship is sunk and the survivors are saved.

It is interesting to note that although Hitchcock avoids garnering any direct sympathy for the emotional salvation of his survivors (as they are all guilty of the crime of murdering Willy - albeit for self-preservation) Hitchcock also fades to black before the American war ship has rescued them, leaving their fates an open ended question.

Lifeboat is perhaps Hitchcock’s most finely wrought character drama to date. The performances throughout are top notch. However, Hitchcock infuriated Steinbeck’s sensibilities when he called writer Ben Hecht in to rework several key sequences including the film’s ending. Despite its overwhelmingly positive conclusion – that of the assumed rescue for the survivors - the film was reviewed by the top film critics in the country as un-American and worse – pro-fascist propaganda.

Concerned that this negativity would also cast a disparaging pall on him, Fox’s CEO Darryl F. Zanuck pulled Lifeboat from circulation shortly after its premiere, despite the fact that it opened to positive opening weekend grosses and was doing steady business around the country. Regrettably, Lifeboat would remain buried in the Fox vaults for the next 40 years.

Fox Home Video has released a Special Edition of Lifeboat that belies the poor storage of the original film elements. Working from a print rather than the original camera negative, the overall quality of the B&W image exhibits boosted contrast levels and a considerable amount of grain that loosely translates into digital grit. 
Overall, the image quality is not bad – it just lacks in the areas of refinement and fine details. Blacks are deep. Whites are a dirty dingy mess. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a commentary track by noted Hitchcock expert, Drew Casper, a featurette on the making of the movie and its theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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