Blu-ray Review: Lifeboat

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: March 21, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:36:58

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.39:1

Bitrate: 24.91 Mbps

Notes: A DVD edition of this title was previously released by 20th Century Fox in North America, but this marks the film’s Blu-ray debut in this region.

Title

“…It was a challenge, but it was also because I wanted to prove a theory I had then. Analyzing the psychological pictures that were being turned out, it seemed to me that, visually, eighty percent of the footage was shot in close-ups or semi-close shots. Most likely it wasn’t a conscious thing with most of the di­rectors, but rather an instinctive need to come closer to the action. In a sense, this treatment was an anticipation of what was to become the television technique.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While there is certainly an abundance of close-ups and medium shots in Lifeboat, Hitchcock still manages to pull off a diverse and creative mise-en-scène throughout its duration. In fact, Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most creatively successful cinematic experiments. Unfortunately, the film is usually treated with a certain amount of apathy by scholars and critics.

It is too easy to simply write the film off as an anomaly in the director’s career and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s droll reaction to Tallulah Bankhead’s unfortunate habit of not wearing any underwear: “I’m not sure if this is a matter for wardrobe or hairdressing” or his reaction to Mary Anderson when she asked which was her better side: “You’re sitting on it, my dear.” In fact, most writings on the film focus on such anecdotes (and no two versions of either of these stories are consistent). Very little attention is paid to the film itself or to the rich viewing experience that it provides to willing audiences.

Perhaps this is because the film isn’t usually evaluated in the same manner as most Hitchcock pictures. There are those who see this as an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novella, and this particular approach is both misguided and misleading. John Steinbeck wasn’t even responsible for the film’s premise—despite what the author’s widow has claimed in the past. Hitchcock himself originated the idea of making a movie about a cross-section of American society adrift on a Lifeboat and had originally approached Ernest Hemingway to write a treatment. John Steinbeck was only contacted after Hemingway turned the project down. He agreed to write a treatment in novella form if he would be allowed to publish the novella after the film’s release. The treatment was never completed nor was it ever published—though a ghostwriter did rework the treatment for magazine publication in order to help promote the film’s release.

“I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give a dramatic form to each of the se­quences.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

These facts should alter one’s reading of the film as an adaptation because it was actually an original screenplay that was developed in much the same manner that other original scripts were developed. However, this none of these facts are intended to discount Steinbeck’s contribution to the project. The resulting film is one of the Hitchcock’s most political and it makes a number of interesting social observations and statements.

20th Century Fox understood this and saw it as an important “prestige” film, and Darryl F. Zanuck, therefore, wanted to make contributions to the picture. This resulted in memorandum that pressured the director to make cuts and to add music. In the end, only minor cuts were made and music was only added to the beginning and ending of the film. It is believed that Zanuck’s desire for Hitchcock to direct another movie for the studio resulted in his giving the director more creative freedom than he would have usually allowed. In any case, Zanuck was pleased with the final result.

Hitchcock Cameo - Publicity Photo

This is a publicity still featuring Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat.

Hitchcock Cameo

This is a screenshot of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat. “That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up. Usually, I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean. I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink. I couldn’t play one of the nine survivors since each had to be played by a competent performer. Finally, I hit on a good idea. At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds. So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. These photographs were used in a news¬ paper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them—and me—when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat. The role was a great hit. I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how they could get Reduco.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

In fact, everyone involved expected the film to be an enormous success and reviews were initially positive, but Bosley Crowther’s second review altered the film’s critical reception from that point forward. Dorothy Thompson—the template for Bankhead’s characterization of Constance Porter—famously gave the film ten days to get out of town.

“One of the things that drew the fire of the American critics is that I had shown a German as being superior to the other char­acters. But at that time, 1940-41, the French had been defeated, and the allies were not doing too well. Moreover, the German, who at first claimed to be a simple sailor, was actually a submarine commander; therefore there was every reason for his being better qualified than the others to take over the command of the life­ boat. But the critics apparently felt that a nasty Nazi couldn’t be a good sailor. Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit else­where, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics often complained that Hitchcock never made political or socially relevant films—but when he made this kind of film, they usually lashed out at the director. The reason for this is simple. Most so-called “relevant” films were in all actuality propaganda, and propaganda is never completely honest. Audiences must be pandered to in order for propaganda to be successful: “Americans are strong, righteous, and courageous. What’s more, we have right on our side…” Hitchcock doesn’t pander. He holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and darker impulses—and he does this in Lifeboat. His pictures are more relevant than most of the films that critics praised. Lifeboat was a warning about the complacent self-interest and petty philosophical differences that divide us or weaken our resolve, and this is why the film is still relevant.

“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the com­mon enemy, whose strength was precisely de­rived from a spirit of unity and of determination.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics and journalists weren’t the only ones complaining. John Steinbeck disliked the film and tried in vain to have his name removed from both film and its publicity.

“New York January 10, 1944 Dear Sirs, I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary, there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro, there was a Negro of dignity, purpose, and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.” -John Steinbeck (Letter to 20th Century Fox, January 10, 1944)

It is more than a little obvious that the author’s dissatisfaction with the film was entirely due to the many changes made to his unfinished treatment, and it should be said that his comments about Canada Lee’s portrayal of Joe Spencer are enormously unfair. He may well be the most dignified character on the boat—and he certainly couldn’t be labeled “a stock comedy Negro.” It is lamentable that the film suggests that Joe is a reformed pickpocket, but this is certainly overshadowed by Canada Lee’s dignified portrayal and the fact that he is the film’s moral anchor. In any case, Steinbeck’s request was ignored. The studio had agreed to the writer’s salary in part because they could exploit his name in the film’s publicity materials and they weren’t about to give that up.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the Blu-ray disc in the standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that makes use of two different vintage one-sheet designs. The first side makes use of the original American one-sheet while the second side showcases the 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork. Both choices are better than the average home video artwork.

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There is also a small Kino Lorber catalog included that features box art for many of their other releases.

Menu

The disc’s static menu also utilizes the hand-painted 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork and this works quite beautifully. Music from the film’s opening credit sequence can be heard underneath this image.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber’s release of the film is a solid one that showcases more information on the left and right edges of the frame than the original DVD edition of the film. The image is remarkably film-live without appearing too grainy and this allows fine detail to shine through without any annoying issues. The film has never looked this sharp. The black levels are deep and accurate and contrast seems to accurately represent the film. There are a few scratches and some dirt can be seen on occasion but these never become problematic.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s mono DTS-HD Master Audio track seem to reproduce the film’s original audio without any issues. Problems like hiss, hum, pops, and crackle isn’t evident. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the atmospheric effects are given enough room to breathe. The music heard in the film credits seems a bit boxed in but this is the result of the original recording methods and not the transfer.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas is a critic for Video Watchdog and doesn’t seem to have any real authoritative knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock’s work. He does supply a wealth of knowledge and his analysis of the film is enjoyable, intriguing, and reasonably astute. However, the revelations provided are marred by a number of inaccuracies. For example, John Steinbeck was not responsible for the film’s premise as he was commissioned by Hitchcock to write the Lifeboat treatment in novella form. What’s more, Joe Spencer doesn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. He recites the 23rs Psalm. These are only two of a number of inaccuracies. Having said this, this commentary is worth one’s time for some of the theoretical analysis provided.

Audio Commentary by Film Professor Drew Casper

Drew Casper is a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and teaches courses on Alfred Hitchcock. His commentary is more languidly paced than the Tim Lucas commentary and there are more moments of silence. Much of the same information is offered here, and some of Casper’s authoritative statements are simply conjecture. However, the information that he offers is both interesting and worthwhile. What’s more, it is clear that he does have an abundance of knowledge about the director and his work while Tim Lucas seems to have retrieved most of his information from a simple Google search.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: Theater of War – (20:00)

Peter Ventrella’s retrospective “making-of” documentary isn’t as comprehensive as some of those made by Laurent Bouzereau during the early days of DVD, but it does offer much more background information than those he made about Alfred Hitchcock’s Warner Brothers films. Unfortunately, none of the film’s participants were on hand to discuss the film, but Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter), Mary Stone (Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter), Drew Casper (Hitchcock scholar), and Robert DeMott (Steinbeck scholar) appear during the program to provide some general background information and a few stories from the set. Viewers who are well versed in Hitchcock history might not find much new information here, but the vast majority of the population should learn quite a bit. It’s really a great addition to the disc!

Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview – (11:54)

It’s very pleasing to find that audio from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews is being added to the supplemental packages for Hitchcock’s films. These excerpts find Hitchcock discussing Lifeboat and his memories and thoughts are illustrated by still photos, posters, lobby cards, and footage from the film.

Lifeboat Blu-ray Promo – (01:27)

One wishes that Kino Lorber had included the film’s original theatrical trailer instead of this advertisement for this Blu-ray release. This really doesn’t add anything to the package and those who have already bought the disc don’t really need to be sold.

Additional Trailers

Interestingly, three theatrical trailers for other Kino Lorber releases are provided on the disc:

Compulsion Theatrical Trailer – (01:01)

Five Miles to Midnight Theatrical Trailer – (03:19)

23 Paces to Baker Street Theatrical Trailer – (02:15)

None of these are relevant to Lifeboat unless one considers that Anthony Perkins (Psycho) stars in Five Miles to Midnight, Vera Miles (The Wrong Man, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) appears in 23 Paces to Baker Street, and Compulsion—like Rope is based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murders (although Rope is based on a play that is loosely inspired by the murders while Compulsion is a direct adaptation of those events).

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Final Words:

Kino Lorber’s solid transfer and a nice supplemental package make this an easy recommendation for Hitchcock enthusiasts and admirers of classic cinema!

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Review by: Devon Powell

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