Sunday, April 15, 2018


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Here’s another movie from my favorite American director, Alfred Hitchcock. This 1944 film, based on a story by John Steinbeck, presents complex characters brought together on a lifeboat after the freighter they were on was sunk by a German submarine. The attitudes of these people and how they clash and also work together serve as a microcosm for America’s citizens and those with whom they are at war.
The opening of the film establishes the circumstances. There is a ship sinking, its smokestack spewing thick, dark smoke. We know right away the situation is perilous. There are numerous objects floating in the water, including a Red Cross crate (something meant to help others but which has been rendered useless because of war), an issue of the New Yorker magazine, playing cards, and eating utensils. These adrift items point to how objects which are part of a civilization have been torn away from their users by the violence of war.

Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) is a vain journalist who tries to maintain the appearance of someone whose personal appearance and lifestyle have not been tarnished by the catastrophic ordeal surrounding her. Her hair looks stylish, and she wears a fur coat. She is more concerned about the run in her stocking than in the vessel that has sunk. Her priority is getting news footage on her camera before helping a survivor get onboard the lifeboat on which she has taken refuge. The man who joins her on the escape craft is John Kovac (John Kodiak), and in contrast to Porter, he is filthy, smeared all over with oil because he worked in the engine room. He is very aware of the differences between them as he points out that she doesn’t look like she has been in a shipwreck. We note her cold detachment to the horror of the situation as she is excited by her recording of how the Germans had even shelled the lifeboats. She also recorded people getting sucked down into the water, and tells Kovac that the German U-boat was also sunk. Kovac quickly sees that Porter is self-involved with sensationalist journalism, and when a baby’s milk bottle drifts pass them, and she wants to get a shot of it, he says to her, “Why don’t you wait for the baby to float by.” He sums her up when he tells her that her observations of events show that she only describes them in terms of how they relate to her. He later tells her that she basically views the war as if it were a stage show for her amusement, and that if enough people die, she might give it a rating of “four stars.” Kovac accidentally knocks Porter’s camera into the sea when he lunges for an oar to try and rescue another survivor. Porter again is only worried about her story and her things as she is incensed about losing her recordings as opposed to saving another human being. Kovac’s sarcastic comment about her complaints is, “Maybe we can arrange another shipwreck for you sometime.”

More people find safety on the lifeboat. Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), nicknamed “Sparks,” was the radioman. Charles J. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), known as “Ritt,” is a rich industrialist, and he has had prior dealings with Porter. Gus Smith (William Bendix), has an injured leg which is especially worrisome to him since he is a man who loves to dance the jitterbug, and has a girl named Rosie who is also a dancer. Joe Spencer (Canada Lee) was trying to rescue a woman, Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) and her baby, but he says that she fought him, as if wanting to drown. Another woman, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson) is a military nurse, and she quietly lets the others know that the baby did not survive. Apparently the mother was traveling to show the father the baby for the first time, which shows the heartbreak that war inflicts as it separates and destroys families. Porter shows more to her personality than selfishness as she offers her mink coat to Mrs. Higley, who is at first in denial about the baby’s death, but then later becomes unhinged by the loss of her child.
One last person climbs up onto the lifeboat and he is not recognized by the others because, as we find out, he speaks German and is a survivor from the German U-boat. His name is Willi (Walter Slezak). Porter speaks German and questions the sailor. He says that he is not the captain. He helped fire on the lifeboats even though they posed no military threat because he was “just following orders.” Of course this is the now maligned excuse offered by ex-Nazis to justify their horrific actions during WWII. The way each person responds to the enemy soldier epitomizes a diversity of human reactions. Kovac immediately wants the man thrown overboard for his participation in the deplorable sinking of their ship’s survivors. At first Gus says that Willi is a German and can’t help his being of the same heritage as the country whose leaders chose to fight the war. Kovac counters by saying, “Neither can a snake help being a rattlesnake if he’s born a rattlesnake. That don’t make him a nightingale!” Of course the argument is simplistic, since animals are more instintual than humans, who can exercise more free will. Gus then sides with Kovac, noting that he changed his name from Schmidt to Smith, and is ashamed that he has a German background, since what the Nazis did desecrated his heritage. Here we find that although America is a nation of immigrants, the importance of being an American who is defending the belief in liberty in a time of war outweighs ethnic considerations. Sparks and Porter say that Willi is their P.O.W, and should be turned over to the authorities once they are rescued. When others say it is against the law to basically murder the German, Kovac says of their situation, “there is no law.” Ritt tells Kovac that if they treat Willi like the Nazis treat others, then they are just as bad as their enemies. This argument brings up the question of whether people should, and need to, maintain the laws enacted by society even when there is a breakdown of the social status quo, and it is more expedient and practical to enact immediate measures. MacKenzie voices a higher moral, compassionate perspective as she says that she doesn’t understand why people go to war at all and hurt each other. She joined the military not to fight, but to patch up the wounded.

However, patriotism can become exaggerated to the point of paranoia in a wartime situation, as is seen in the character of Kovac. He becomes suspicious of Porter’s fluency in German. He says she seems to have been well prepared for the attack on the freighter, since she brought all of her belongings, including her suitcase. He says that she may have known the Germans were coming. Porter says she just responded to having to be in a lifeboat. Ritt now makes the connection between them and the outside world when he says, “we’re all sort of fellow travelers in a mighty small boat, in a mighty big ocean. And the more we quarrel, criticize and misunderstand each other, the bigger the ocean gets and the smaller the boat.” Sometimes a change in perspective, as happens here, by shrinking the world down, makes more clear how the actions of individuals do have a direct impact on the population as a whole, and working together is necessary to keep all of us out of harm’s way.
Joe, the African American steward, is perhaps the most praiseworthy one of this bunch. He risked his own life while trying to save Mrs. Higley and her baby. He shows defiance against racism when he says he does not like being called “George,” and wants to be addressed by his given name. (As IMDb points out, that nickname derives from the many black servants who served on George Pullman passenger trains). When the survivors vote on who will lead them, Joe is asked how he wishes to vote. He is surprised that he would get a chance to give his opinion. His response illustrates the effect on African Americans for being deprived of their civil rights for so long. He says, “I’d rather stay out of this.” He has seen how some of the people on the boat have acted in a selfish and vengeful manner, and his reaction implies that he would rather not be part of the white world that has caused so much pain. He is also the most spiritual one as he knows by heart the “The valley of the shadow of death” lines from the 23rd Psalm of the bible when they perform a burial at sea for the dead baby. At the end of the story, he is the one who has pictures of his family, showing him to be someone who has been able to commit to others.

That quality can’t be applied to Kovac who has tattoos with the initials of all his female conquests. Porter, who has used men for her own monetary gain, shows scorn for them, while at the same time, admiring the canvas on which they are painted. When she asks how many skin illustrations of these kind does he have, Kovac’s sexually charged response is, “Remind me to show you the rest of them some time.” Even the humanitarian MacKenzie is in love with a married man in England, and is afraid to go back to England because of the temptation to transgress. However, her feelings of guilt do not resonate with the self-centered Porter. She, in reference to the man being married, says, “You call that a problem?”

Being stranded in the lifeboat affects its occupants differently. Sparks and Gus have been through the predicament before, suggesting that war’s punishments seem to never cease. Sparks and MacKenzie seek comfort from the bleakness of their fate by reaching out to each other affectionately, eventually promising to get married. The survivors replace the lost playing cards with improvise ones out of pieces of paper in order to hold onto some form of entertainment. Mrs. Higley is driven mad by the loss of her child, and stares off into the vastness of the sea which she believes is her child’s infinite resting place. While the others sleep, she joins her baby, going overboard. Porter’s first reaction to the suicide is typical for her, complaining that the woman took her fur coat with her. In addition to Porter’s camera, she also loses her lipstick, and later her typewriter and suitcase in a storm. She must free herself of her worldly possessions so she can participate as a contributing member, working with others.

Before that happens, there are references to class struggle in society. Because of her fur and jewelry, Porter seems high class to Kovac, while he struggled working in the stockyards section of Chicago. Previously, Porter asked Kovac to fix the catch on her bracelet, treating him like a lower class laborer. But during the storm he holds onto her and says they’ll go down together. Afterwards Porter comments on how reaching out for each other while almost losing their lives in the storm was a kind of intimacy. She says, “Dying together’s even more personal than living together.” Her observation is insightful because people draw closer to one another when they must face adversity together. She admits that she is from the same area near the stockyards. She says, “You’re a low person, darling. Obviously, out of the gutter.” But, since she is also “out of the gutter,” they are attracted to each other. But, Kovac doesn’t believe at this point that she is sincere about any long-standing connection to him given her rise above her station. He sees her coming on to him as a form of “slumming.” The wealthy Ritt says to Sparks that he doesn’t have to call him Rittenhouse, but can use his nickname because, “We’re all in the same boat.” This phrase usually applies in a figurative sense, but here that usage is reinforced because it is also literally the case here. And the fact that all of these people are cut off from society at large and the playing field is level should mean that they can leave behind the things that separated them. But, Ritt can’t do that himself, having been a captain of industry. He assumes the role of leader, assigning tasks to the others. They, in turn, are defiant. When Kovac asks what Ritt knows about a ship, Porter says, “Among other things, he just happens to own a shipyard.” Kovac then says sarcastically, “Has he ever been in it?” With the approval of others, Kovac assumes command, illustrating that those at the top of the social chain may not be the ones to rely on to do the dirty work of actually getting the job done.
The German sailor, Willi, one would think would be someone who can leave behind the war and focus on joining the others as equal members of the human race as they try to survive. It seems that way at first, since he appears to know the best way to get to Bermuda. He also was a surgeon in civilian life, and says that Gus’ leg is so bad, he must amputate it or else the man will die. Porter does perform a couple of decent acts here as she gives Gus a large bottle of brandy to drink so that he will pass out during the surgery, and a cigarette to smoke. She also gives him a big kiss as a kind of affectionate good luck gesture before the operation. They all work together to help Willi with the procedure, and Gus survives the amputation. Hitchcock spares us the grisly aspects of the operation, and all we see is Kovac tossing Gus’ boot aside, symbolic of the lost leg. (Hitchcock uses close-ups to great advantage to provide visual variety in such a claustrophobic setting. He also gets in his a trademark cameo of himself in a weight loss ad in a newspaper that depicts before-and-after photos of himself).
Porter suspects that Willi is not just another seaman, and calls out the word for “captain” in German. When Willi responds to the title, they realize he was the one who was issuing, not following orders. They also learn that he can speak English. However, despite his deceptions, and Kovac’s objections, the majority of the survivors put their trust in Willi since he knows about sailing. Willi also gets them through the bad storm, and he uses his strength to row the boat after the mast is destroyed in the strong winds. However, he now appears to waver on which is the right direction they should be heading. We also see him pull out his own compass in secret (the Americans’ compass was broken). As the survivors become more weak through dehydration and hunger, Willi takes more control. Sparks realizes, by noting the positions of Venus and Mars, that they are heading away from Bermuda. Also, MacKenzie saw what she thought was Willi’s watch (but which was really the compass) and yet the man asked the time of day. They discover the compass and now know that he is rowing them toward a German supply ship. They are now his P.O.W’s. But given the low supply of provisions, Willi convinces them that going to a supply ship is their best bet.
But Willi is not able to leave the war behind. Gus has been drinking sea water, and he becomes delusional, thinking Rosie is there. Gus sees Willi drinking from a bottle. Willi, afraid that Gus will expose the fact that he has brought drinking water with him, feels he must get rid of Gus. While the others are sleeping, Willi talks to him, pretending to comfort him, but when Gus comes closer, Willi pushes him overboard. Sparks now realizes he heard Gus speaking, and they suspect Willi of doing him in. They see that Willi is sweating, so he must have water to do so. They find his bottle of water, and he admits that he also brought with him salt and food tablets. In a rage, they beat Willi and throw him overboard. Ritt, exercising poetic justice, but which also has a touch of irony, pummels Willi with Gus’ boot, which is fitting since Willi killed Gus, but it also is a reminder that the German first saved him with the surgery. Porter comments that Willi was like Hitler, because both took advantage of desperate people. Ritt, disillusioned with Willi’s behavior after they rescued the man and trusted him, asks, “What do you do with people like that?”
The survivors show a range of feelings. Porter is angry about losing her things and now feeling hungry and thirsty. She turns on Ritt, blaming him for losing the food in the storm. He says she can write a book about her tribulations, because everything is always about her. Kovac and Ritt play cards, and Ritt accuses Kovac of cheating. Ritt later has regrets that he joined the mob action of tossing Willi overboard, and bemoans never having children. When many of the survivors are ready to give up, Porter rallies them. She gives up her diamond bracelet, the object that Kovac felt symbolized her selfishness, so that it can be used as a lure to catch a fish for food. Porter jokes about her greed when she says about the bracelet, “I can recommend the bait. I know … I bit on it myself.”
Just as they are about to land a fish, the German supply ship appears and sends out a smaller craft to collect them. But then an Allied ship shows up, and fires and sinks the boat and then the German ship. A young German sailor climbs aboard the lifeboat. Again, some are ready to help him. But, he has a gun, which they are able to take away from him. He asks if they are going to kill him. And so, the ending of the story is like the beginning, with a ship and its boats being destroyed, this time by Allied forces. Another German appears, and people can’t forget about being enemies so that they can work together. Despite some altruistic actions, it appears that humans are caught in a vicious cycle of selfishness, mistrust, and violence.
After the encounter with the new German, Sparks repeats Ritt’s question: “What do you do with people like that?” Kovac says, “I dunno. I was thinking of Mrs. Higley and her baby. And Gus.” Porter’s pessimistic comment is, “Maybe they can answer that.” The living can’t say why humans are so self-destructive, and the dead can’t speak. We are left with an unanswered question.

The next film is Fahrenheit 451.

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