Classic Movie Review: Lifeboat (1944)

Title: Lifeboat
Release Date: January 11, 1944
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: 20th Century Fox

Since I started my Classic Movie project in August, I’ve watched movies on streaming services on my iPad and DVD on my television.  With the Lifeboat, I took the opportunity to watch a 75th anniversary screening at Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.  And am I ever glad I did, because it is a well-scripted, well-acted, and compelling drama.

The film begins in media res with foreign correspondent Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) alone in the titular lifeboat amid the wreckage of a merchant vessel and a U-boat in the North Atlantic.  She looks particularly well-dressed and highfalutin for the situation, but demonstrates her knowledge and resourcefulness over the course of the film.  Other survivors climb on board, including:

  • Gus Smith (William Bendix), an American merchant marine ashamed of his German ancestry and suffering from an injured leg. He’s kind of your city kid archetype.
  • Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a U.S. Army nurse, a competent and compassionate healer.  Anderson was strong in this role (and also quite beautiful) and I’m surprised that she doesn’t seem to have any other major movie roles.
  • John Kovac (John Hodiak), an engine man crewman, who is the “tough but fair” man who takes the leadership role over the survivors.
  • Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse Jr. (Henry Hull), a prosperous industrialist who initially takes the leadership role, but defers to Kovac’s experience. Nevertheless he remains a more compassionate voice in conflict with Kovac.
  • Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship’s steward, who proves to the most heroic among the survivors and a quiet leader.  Joe is the only Black character in the movie and is written as a stereotypical/token character but Lee’s performance really elevates Joe.
  • Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), radioman, who is a friend of Gus and forms a bond with Alice.
  • Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a young British woman who is traumatized by the death of her infant child.

The last person to climb on board is a survivor of the U-boat wreck, Willi (Walter Slezak).  His presence on the lifeboat is the center of much of the conflict in the film as some, particularly Kovac, argue that he should be allowed to drown, while Connie, Ritt, and Stanley argue that would be inhumane and that he should be held as a prisoner. For a movie made in the middle of World War II, Willi is presented as a complex character and sometimes sympathetically, but ultimately untrustworthy.  The key lesson for viewers watching this film in 2019 is “Don’t let Nazis take charge!”

In addition to their German prisoner, the crew of the lifeboat have to contend with the loss of their food, water, and supplies, no navigational tools, Gus’ leg turning gangrenous, and a vicious storm.  Amid the depiction of conflict and deprivation in a close space, there are still many moments of humanity and even humor.  For example, there’s a running gag of Connie inadvertently losing her prized possessions to the sea. The final scenes of the movie are set among a stunning reenactment of a battle at sea and is suitably terrifying.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen.  Hitchcock’s direction is terrific and Bankhead, Lee, and Slezak in particular put in great performances in a strong cast.  It’s also interesting to note that the screenplay is by John Steinbeck, his first fictional work created for film.  Take the opportunity to see this movie if it plays at your local arthouse cinema.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Author: Chris Bohjalian
Title: Skeletons at the Feast
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2008
ISBN: 9781415948910


The William & Mary Alumni Boston Chapter selected this novel set in German-occupied Poland at the end of the Second World War.  It tells the story of three different journeys that intertwine and complement one another.  First there is the Emmerich family, prosperous German farmers in East Prussia with the elderly father and eldest sons off fighting, the women and children flee west to safety from the Russian army taking with them a Scottish POW.  Then there is Uri, a Jew who escaped from the prison trains and has spent two years taking on the uniforms and identities of various German officers both for survival and sabotage.  Finally there is Cecille, a French Jewish woman forced with her fellow prisoners on a death march (although this is the least well-realized of the three storylines).

Bohjalian does not shrink from the details of all that was horrible about the war and the Holocaust.  Yet, in the end this is a book about hope.  After tearing us down, Bohjalian builds us back up with the romance of 18-year old Anna Emmerich and the Scottish airman Callum, the persistence of Cecille, the bravery of Uri and many small, kind acts.  The one thing I wish the author had not done was to distance the Emmerich’s so much from Nazism.  It seems a cop-out that many authors/filmmakers fall on is the “good German” instead of trying to find humanity or promise of redemption in those who adhered to this evil ideology.

All in all a gripping and well-written novel.

Recommended books: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Round-Up

Delicatessen (1991)

One of my favorite films which I saw on the big screen at Brattle Theatre a few years back.  This was the first time Susan saw it and I was surprised that I’d forgotten how dark and gory this post-apocalyptic cannibalistic black comedy was.  Still, it is funny and amazing creative with possibly the best opening titles sequence ever as well as a couple of masterful set pieces.

Delicatessen title sequence:

Classic scene from Delicatessen used in trailer:

Mark Twain (2001)

A Ken Burns documentary about America’s great celebrity author, a man of many contradictions who lead a life both charmed and tragic.  I didn’t know much about Mark Twain’s life beyond a few famous fables so I enjoyed learning about the man and his work in this well-filmed, well-narrated, and well-illustrated documentary.

The Great Escape (1963)

The ultimate WWII prisoner of war film is entertaining if a bit long.  The Germans round up the most troublesome prisoners into one high-security camp and the Allied prisoners respond by planning the most daring escape ever.  The film claims to be based on actual events although a lot of what happens is dramatized, compressed, and composite-ized beyond reality, so it’s best to watch this for it entertainment and symbolic value rather than for a history lesson.

Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the Eddie Izzard routine on The Great Escape while watching this:

The Historic Pubs of Dublin (2008)

For St. Patrick’s Day, I enjoyed this hour-long journey through the best pubs in Dublin with writer Frank McCourt.  Pubs patronized by writers and revolutionaries are visited as well as good places to enjoy a pint, a whiskey, Irish trad, and some good craic are all visited.  McCourt also leads the viewer to some of the top tourist attractions in Dublin, often conveniently proximite to a pub.

Book Review: Lee Miller’s War by Lee Miller, edited by Anthony Penrose

Lee Miller is a fascinating woman. She was a model and muse to photographers like Man Ray and took up surrealist photography herself among other talents. Following the Normandy invasion, Miller got herself credentialed as a war correspondent. She followed the progress of the American armed forces and the liberation of France, Luxembourg, and Germany for Vogue magazine of all publications (apparently her grim photographs of the war dead ran pages after typical fashion advice articles). Miller’s son Anthony Penrose says that his mother didn’t speak much of the war. In Lee Miller’s War (1992) Penrose collects the dispatches, letters, telegrams, and most importantly the evocative photographs of Lee Miller’s war experience.

Compared to Ernie Pyle, these stories have something of a women’s touch. Granted, Miller was often restricted from the frontlines against her wishes, although on one occasion she found herself in the heart of battle. More typically Miller is left to cover the fashion of Paris and how Parisians “dressed up” as an act of defiance against the occupying Germans. There’s even photos and descriptions of Paris’ first fashion show post-occupation. Miller also hobnobs with celebrities of the time like Picasso, Cocteau, and Collette which is interesting in that I never stopped to think that these well known people lived under German occupation. A similar novelty is the liberation of Luxembourg. It’s rare to hear about the war from the point of view of Luxembourg and its people.

Don’t be misunderstood though. Lee Miller confronts the war in all it’s grim and gritty nature. Her visceral distaste for the German POW’s and civilians lends an immediacy to the war correspondence. Her photos of liberated concentration camps capture all the horror while lending dignity to the survivors. She also ended up staying in Hitler’s Munich apartment where she was famously photographed in the bathtub.

This is a fascinating book to read and study. As always, MetaFilter has a couple of good posts with links relating to Lee Miller’s life and work.

Author: Miller, Lee, 1907-1977.
Title: Lee Miller’s war : photographer and correspondent with the Allies in Europe, 1944-45 / foreword by David E. Scherman ; edited by Antony Penrose.
Publication: Info. Boston : Little, Brown, c1992.
Edition: 1st North American ed.
Description: 208 p. : ill. ; 29 cm.

Book Review: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

Our Boston Chapter of the William & Mary Alumni Society book club selected The Welsh Girl (2007) by Peter Ho Davies for our April reading. From the dust jacket summary, I gathered this was a romance between a German POW and a local girl and figured this was a remake of Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, required reading in Junior High School.

Luckily, it’s a bit more complex than that.  The Welsh Girl basically intertwines the stories of three people in WWII Wales.  First, there’s Rotherham a refugee from Germany, not Jewish himself but with Jewish ancestry, who becomes an interogator for the British and comes to Wales to take a crack at Rudolf Hess.  Then, there’s Esther a teenage girl who lives on her fathers sheep farm and pulls pints at the local pub.  Finally, there’s Karsten, a handsome German soldier who to his shame is among the first to surrender on D-Day.  The three characters do not actually interact with one another for the majority of the book, so what we have three stories wound together around similar themes: a sense of belonging, identity (both personal and national), and feeling caged-in (both literally and metaphorically).

Unfortunately, The Welsh Girl is a rather dull book.  The Welsh scenery and cast of supporting characters lend a great texture to the story, but Davies appears to reserved to really let us into the minds of his characters.  Thus things just seem to turn out too pat and convenient for the plot.  The conclusion is particularly disappointing as it has Rotherham basically providing a distant epilogue for Esther and Kartsen.  A nice read for its place and time, but definitely a novel that could use some re-writing.

Movie Review: The Longest Day

Once again inspired by watching Ken Burns’ The War, we watched The Longest Day (1962) a dramatization of the D-Day invasion.  Its a long film with a mammoth cast that appears to be trying to tell the entire story of D-Day from every angle all at once.  Despite some typical Hollywood hokiness, The Longest Day does a good job of sticking to the story.  Every character speaks his/her native tongue and typical stereotypes are avoided, although each nationality is colorful in their own way: the French are rather nutty, the Germans are arrogant and dismissive of the Allies even as they’re losing the battle, the English are eccentric, and the Americans are goofy in an aw-shucks kind of way.  The film tries to be accurate in depicting the invasion to the smallest details but they do leave out one of the most interesting parts to me, when the naval captains disobeyed orders and brought their ships dangerously close to shore to provide artillery cover for the landing forces.  The film has some great film sequences including a tracking shot over the beach that must have needed thousands of well-coordinated extras.

The Longest Day’s cast is full of the top American and European actors of the day, although I think I’d have trouble picking them out even if I knew who all of them were.  Some big name actors like Henry Fonda are basically reduced to one-scene walk-ons due to the massive scale of the film.  One of the stand-out performances is Kenneth More as Colin Maud standing on the beach with his bulldog encouraging British shoulders by telling them “the war is that way.”  Similarly,  Robert Mitchum rallies the troops on Omaha Beach as General Norman Cota.  John Wayne has a big part as paratrooper Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort and plays it in the typically corny John Wayne manner (ducks as John Wayne fans come in to defend the Duke).  One performer, Henry Grace, was not an actor at all but cast merely because he resembled Dwight Eisenhower.  It’s a pity that they did not go through with the plan of having then-former President Ike play himself.