ALFRED HITCHCOCK FOR LIFEBOAT (1944)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Leo McCarey for Going My Way
Henry King for Wilson
Otto Preminger for Laura
Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
How great is a minor film by a major filmmaker? If any other director of the 1940s had tackled Lifeboat, it might have been remembered among the landmark cinematic experiments of the decade (witness: Ang Lee). However, as a part of Hitchcock’s prodigious oeuvre, it goes down as a second-tier effort even in terms of the master filmmaker’s middle period. With Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and even the nearly avant-garde Rope close at hand for comparison, Hitchcock’s ambitious if flawed storytelling exercise has been dwarfed in its legacy. Yet to the Directors Branch at the time, Hitchcock’s film, shot over months in an elevated water tank on the Fox lot, presented a masterful and undeniably award-worthy filmmaking achievement.
The film’s limitations largely derive from John Steinbeck’s ensemble narrative, attempting to combine a low-boil survival drama with an examination of wartime politics and morality. The trick works at first—I appreciated the fog-shrouded uncertainty of the film’s first half as the unflappable Tallulah Bankhead and hotheaded John Hodiak spar over a navigation strategy and the fate of their prisoner of war. Ultimately, however, intriguing ambiguity gives way to a tiresome drill on Nazi villainy, as the storm blows away the fog and reveals a conniving villain behind the previously intriguing German sailor’s diffident façade before Ben Hecht’s rewritten ending recuperates some of the story’s complexity.
Regardless of the narrative’s flaws, Hitchcock’s directorial talent is evident at every turn. Glen MacWilliams’ controlled and richly atmospheric cinematography (produced in very abnormal shooting circumstances) deserves much credit, but Hitch’s meticulously preplanned compositions are the key to the film’s visual success. Hitchcock’s eye is evident from the opening sequence trawling the flotsam of the shipwreck (complete with the gleeful presentation of a face-down corpse) to the home movie camera that is promptly knocked overboard, a wry comment on the drama’s undocumentable premise and a notable resonance with Life of Pi if you ask me. By contrast, Hitch’s own godlike camera unerringly picks out the key details of the story, with the amputation scene a standout example of his principles of indirect action. Who else would choose to focus on the hands cupping the lighter as it sterilizes the knife, or remain with Hodiak during the act itself, struggling to steady the boat while glancing at a distance at the concealed operation? While not among the director’s finest total packages, this is no less of an impeccable directorial vision than the supreme auteur’s most acclaimed work, and a worthy entry in the Best Director race.
The 1944 Academy Awards were marked by the shift from ten Best Picture nominees to only five, creating a six-decade partition between the Best Picture overlaps—of which there were almost always three or four, but seldom all five—and the rogue nominees. Hitchcock’s second career nomination fell on the rogue side, along with Otto Preminger’s classy detective fantasy Laura. The Best Picture contingent was led by Leo McCarey, accepting his second award for the schmaltzy Catholic melodrama Going My Way; Henry King, with his second and last nomination for the lumbering biopic Wilson, and Billy Wilder, kicking off one of the most illustrious careers in Oscar history with his first of eight Director nominations for Double Indemnity. In another year, I’d love to cast my vote for Preminger, which Hitchcock running a solid second, but there’s no denying the brilliance of Wilder’s quintessential film noir, one of the Academy’s most remarkable and commendable picks.