Saturday, May 18, 2019

Lifeboat



(1944) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay by Jo Swerling; Story by John Steinbeck; Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Canada Lee and Hume Cronyn; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****½

“The intent of Lifeboat truly was the war in microcosm. In other words, at the beginning of the war, the Russians weren’t in, the Americans weren’t in, and until all these nations could get together, the prospects for democracy were dim. That was the whole symbol of Lifeboat.” – Alfred Hitchcock (from 1973 interview “Conversation with Alfred Hitchcock,” by Arthur Knight, excerpted from Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb)


Alfred Hitchcock had an uncanny knack for pushing his characters (and sometimes by default, his actors) to the breaking point, until their raw emotions and motivations were revealed. To this end, Lifeboat answers the question: what’s left when the vestiges of civilization are gradually peeled away? Trapped within the limited confines of a lifeboat,* our characters are forced to confront each other, their respective prejudices and ideologies. Bereft of elaborate sets or sweeping vistas, Hitchcock was left to corral his assembly of characters into an impossibly tight space. The torturous shoot tested the fortitude of the cast,** incorporating thousands of gallons of water to simulate the stormy sea.

* According to the Blu-ray commentary by Tim Lucas, four boats were constructed for the purposes of filming: two whole, and two split in half, for obtaining the best shooting angles.

** Not So Fun Fact: Hume Cronyn cracked two ribs, and nearly drowned during one of the storm scenes. Tallulah Bankhead, who was continually drenched in water, contracted pneumonia.


Lifeboat wastes no time plunging us into the middle of the drama, as the smokestack of a sinking merchant marine ship, stricken by a German U-boat, plunges into the depths. Our focus is directed to several items of floating debris, including the body of a German U-boat crewman (the attacking ship fared no better). Our eyes then move toward a lifeboat, crewed by a solitary survivor, plucky veteran reporter Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead). Things are about to get much more crowded for the reporter, as several survivors locate the lifeboat. The dramatis personae include: John Kovac, an engine room mechanic (John Hodiak), Gus, a merchant seaman (William Bendix) with a wounded leg, Charles J. Rittenhouse, a wealthy industrialist (Henry Hull), “Sparks,” a radio operator (Hume Cronyn), Joe, a ship’s steward (Canada Lee), and Alice, a young idealistic nurse (Mary Anderson). They’re joined by Mrs. Highley, a traumatized young mother (Heather Angel) with her deceased infant. One additional guest rounds out the motley group, Willi (Walter Slezak), a sailor from the U-boat.


Connie Porter is the most fascinating character among the menagerie of personalities. When we’re initially introduced to her, she appears self-serving and opportunistic, looking for the big scoop amidst the death and confusion. As her physical possessions are stripped away one by one, we begin to see the real person underneath. Her callous, entitled persona is part of an elaborate façade she’s built over time, as a woman who had to be tough (and sometimes ruthless) to climb to the top of the heap in a male-dominated world. At one point, we learn that she shared the same humble Chicago origins as Kovac, but fabricated a new, more cosmopolitan persona over the years. Beneath this polished exterior, with her mink coat and diamond bracelet, resides a vulnerable persona. As the prospect of rescue looms her vanity returns like a security blanket, to shield her from the horrors she’s witnessed.

* Not Quite Fun Fact: Lifeboat enjoyed its share of behind-the-scenes friction, thanks to Bankhead, who took the film’s story to heart a bit too seriously. The actress, who had a reputation for being outspoken, saved her worst for the Austrian-born co-star Slezak (who had strong anti-Nazi sentiments), hurling epithets at him.


In contrast to many of the other characters, Willi, whom we discover is the U-boat commander, seems the most immutable. Hitchcock dismissed criticisms that the film took a pro-German stance by depicting him as the most competent of the group, stating that Willi, as an experienced submariner, was the most qualified for the job. Kovac, while strong-willed, lacks the navigational savvy or even-headed disposition to lead the survivors to safety. Of course, it could be argued that Willi knows his job a little too well. The rest of the survivors conclude he’s setting them on a course to rendezvous with a German supply ship (instead of Bermuda) and an uncertain future. Despite his ulterior motives, he’s far from the sneering villain, extolling a cheerful demeanor and willingness to help. Underneath his affable exterior, however, lurks a cool, calculating mind, that won’t hesitate to sacrifice his new companions if it will benefit him.


Hitchcock presents for our consideration a study of different perspectives. Kovac and Rittenhouse are ideological opposites, as the communist and fascist, respectively. Most of the others, minus Willi, are somewhere between. We can find aspects to identify with many of the characters, who are not merely representative of the conflicts between countries, but within ourselves. Most of us can probably relate to Gus or Kovac, or even Rittenhouse, on some level. Hitchcock brings ugly truths to the surface, underscored by the conflicting voices when no one can reach a consensus. This indecision is exemplified by the scene where the survivors decide on a leader. Kovac wrests control from Rittenhouse, but when he’s finally in command, he’s not sure where to lead them. This opens the door for Willi to surreptitiously take charge. The scene illustrates how anger and idealism can only take you so far. Without reason and a clear plan, you’re doomed to remain adrift.


The theme of loss weighs heavily in Lifeboat’s story. Porter isn’t the only person who’s lost something valuable. William Bendix gives us a multi-faceted, sympathetic performance as Gus Smith, an affable big lug with a bigger heart. He just wants to get back to the States, so he can dance with his sweetheart, Rosie. He harbors insecurities about his injuries, afraid she may not want him minus one leg. The tension mounts when the survivors, under Willi’s direction, are forced to amputate Gus’ leg (offscreen), sans anesthetic. Mrs. Highley represents the cost of the war in terms of lives and mental health. Even Willi has lost something, having left behind a practice as an M.D. before becoming a U-boat commander.


Lifeboat rivals Rope and Rear Window as one of Hitchcock’s most confining films. We’ve established our MacGuffin with Connie Porter,* but how could Hitchcock possibly insert a cameo, given the limited parameters of the film’s setting? He finds a novel approach to the problem, appearing in a newspaper ad. Lifeboat never lets us off the hook keeping us consistently engaged from beginning to conclusion. The audience remains stuck on a boat for nearly 100 minutes, but within the characters lie a world of possibilities.

* Perhaps a character isn’t a MacGuffin in the traditional sense, but our first impression of Porter isn’t an accurate assessment. As a result, I opine the character serves as Hitchcock’s red herring.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Navigator



(1924) Directed by Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp; Written by Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell and Jean C. Havez: Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, and Frederick Vroom; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Rollo Treadway – Heir to the Treadway fortune – a living proof that every family tree must have its sap.” – from title card, introducing Buster Keaton’s character.

The ocean is as beautiful as it is mysterious, covering vast distances and concealing unimaginable dangers. If you’re Buster Keaton, it’s also a setting ripe for comic potential. With The Navigator, Keaton applied his fascination with boats and the water to his most ambitious film to date. The Navigator was shot primarily around Catalina Island (located off the California coast) and on a real ocean liner, the S.S. Buford,* which was fated for the scrap heap. For the purposes of the film, the ship was re-painted and dressed up as the S.S. Navigator. Underwater repair scenes were filmed in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.**

* Not-So-Fun-Fact: Built in 1890, the Buford enjoyed a long career as a military transport and an ocean liner. In 1919, in one particularly sad chapter of the ship’s working life, it was used to deport political dissidents.  

* Fun Fact #1: Because it was mating season for the resident fish, the normally clear Catalina waters were cloudy. Keaton and his crew tried shooting the underwater ship repair scene in the Riverside public swimming pool but were forced to consider another location after the bottom was damaged. According to the DVD commentary by Robert Arkus and Yair Solan, due to the near-freezing temperature of the water in Lake Tahoe, Keaton was forced to shoot his underwater scenes in 30-minute intervals.


Tensions between two unspecified warring nations are at their peak when a millionaire sells his ship, The Navigator, to one side. Meanwhile, enemy agents from the other country plot to steal the Navigator and cast it adrift at sea. Enter scatterbrained heir Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton), as he makes a spontaneous decision to get married (it goes about as well as you would expect), proposes to his sweetheart Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire), and is summarily shot down. Licking his wounds, he embarks on a solitary honeymoon, but unintentionally ends up on the Navigator. As fate would have it, the girl of his dreams also winds up on the wrong boat. Before long, they’re both alone at sea, with no crew or direction. In a case of the clueless leading the obtuse, the two spoiled rich kids must fend for themselves.


Keaton, in a similar role to the role he established in The Saphead (1920) and continued with Battling Butler (1926), plays a poor little rich kid bereft of common sense. Early in the film, Rollo struggles in the ship’s galley to cook a basic meal for Betsy. Ineptitude gives way to ingenuity, however, as they work together to make conditions on the empty ship livable. Betsy follows a similar trajectory, maturing from a pampered socialite to a self-reliant woman.


Co-director/star/producer Keaton and co-director Donald Crisp* didn’t quite synch creatively. Crisp, who was originally hired to film the dramatic sequences, took a keen interest in the comedic scenes, much to Keaton’s chagrin. Keaton was unhappy with Crisp’s footage, and ultimately re-shot some of the co-director’s scenes to meet his aesthetic. It’s hard to gauge how different The Navigator might have been without Keaton’s tinkering, but it’s difficult to deny how well the comedic scenes work. When the ship takes on water, Rollo plunges into the ocean’s depths to repair the damage. The underwater gags including sparring with a swordfish, using another swordfish, and using a lobster as shears. The watery scene was originally longer, until one sequence, Keaton’s favorite, was excised from the final film** after it failed to get the laughs he expected from preview audiences. One of the best, most elaborately choreographed sequences occurs earlier in the film, when Rollo and Betsy first arrive on the Navigator. In an inspired wide shot, they race around the decks occupying opposing corners of the ship’s superstructure – an apt metaphor for their voyage, going nowhere fast. In another terrific gag, Rollo attempts to tow the ship with a rowboat. On a different, sour note, the film does no favors for cultural sensitivity, as Rollo and Betsy encounter a tribe of cannibals (led by pioneering African American actor/filmmaker Noble Johnson), generic indigenous people with no discernible culture. The cannibal mayhem does, however, set up another clever gag, in which Betsy escapes using Rollo (inside the diving suit) as a raft (a scene that was copied in Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper). Keaton pulls off the physical gags with such grace and aplomb, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he’s risking life and limb for the audience’s amusement, whether he’s hanging off a rickety ladder or diving in a 200-pound suit.

* Fun Fact #2: Crisp appears in a sight gag as a portrait of the ship’s grim-faced captain.

** Fun Fact #3: In the gag, as described, Keaton becomes an impromptu traffic cop for a school of fish, using a starfish as a badge. According to the DVD commentary, 1,200 rubber fish were used. The deleted gag enjoyed a second life, however, repurposed for the film’s trailer. Sadly, the cut footage appears to have been lost.


All of Rollo and and Betsy’s efforts seem all for naught by the film's climax. The ending, if edited differently could have become a tragedy, if our protagonists were not saved by the final deus ex machina intervention. We can excuse the ending in this case, which alas, is nothing but a final gag. Reportedly, famous surrealist Salvador Dalí was an ardent fan of The Navigator. One can imagine Dalí, captivated by Keaton’s off-kilter sensibility. By extension, it’s not too difficult speculate that these same pratfalls and absurd underwater hijinks provided inspiration for Warner Bros. cartoons. When slick effects and stunt doubles have become the norm, it’s easy to forget that Keaton and his contemporaries suffered for their art. This knowledge only makes the comedic journey more satisfying.

Sources for this review: Buster Keaton Remembered, by Eleanor Keaton and Jeffrey Vance; Kino Lorber DVD commentary by film historians Robert Arkus and Yair Solan

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Sword & Sorcery Month Quick Picks and Pans



Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) This is the first of two films by director/co-writer Fritz Lang (with a script co-written by Thea von Harbou), based on an epic 11th century German poem. The story follows our protagonist Siegfried (Paul Richter), as he fights a dragon, secures a sword and magic helmet, and conquers a dozen kingdoms. He makes a pact with King Gunther (Theodor Loos) to defeat the unbeatable Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), in exchange for Gunther’s sister, Kriemhild’s (Margarete Schön) hand in marriage. Treachery and deceit intervene, however, to thwart Siegfried’s happiness. Lang hits all the right buttons, with a sweeping tale that balances high adventure with tragedy. The film is a delight for the eyes, with inventive visuals, expansive sets and impressive effects (including a full-sized, fire-breathing dragon). It’s easy to see how it influenced so many sword and sorcery movies in the decades that followed. Die Nibelungen: Siegfried is required viewing for anyone who enjoys fantasy cinema.

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD (Region 2), Amazon Prime and Kanopy


The Devil’s Sword (1984) Barry Prima stars as the hero Mandala in this imaginative flick, steeped in Indonesian lore. When the residents of a village are massacred, Mandala must square off against the nefarious, lusty crocodile queen and her crocodile men. He joins forces with a female warrior from the village, embarking on a quest to find a magical sword, forged from a meteorite. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, director Ratno Timoer proves he has more tricks up his sleeve, with a pit of hungry cannibals, a sword-wielding bad guy on a flying boulder, a cyclopean beast, and so much more. The Devil’s Sword is tough to beat, with non-stop action, martial arts, magic and monsters.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD


Jack the Giant Killer (1962) This excellent fantasy film shares some DNA with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1957), including the director, Nathan Juran, and stars Kerwin Matthews and Torin Thatcher, but has an identity of its own. Jack (Matthew), a simple farmer, is knighted by the king after he saves his daughter, Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) from a fearsome giant. Thatcher is at his sneering best, as the scheming wizard Pendragon, who has eyes on the throne. Jack the Giant Killer is colorful and briskly paced, and filled with cool stop-motion animated beasts. The effects are a notch below Harryhausen’s Dynamation process (the creatures don’t quite have the same level of detail or expression), but they do the trick. The only downside is an annoying leprechaun in a bottle (Don Beddoe), who speaks in rhyme. It’s the perfect movie for a rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Ilya Muromets (1956) If you’ve only seen the Mystery Science Theater version (under the American title, The Sword and the Dragon), you owe the original version a watch. Director Alexandr Ptushko’s epic fantasy, based on Slavic folk tales, provides ample excitement and spectacle. Boris Andreyev stars as the title character (he unconvincingly plays a young man in the beginning), who sees his village besieged by a horde of barbarian invaders. When Vasilisa (Ninel Myshkova), the love of his life, is kidnapped, he embarks on a quest to save her and his homeland. There’s action aplenty, with imaginative sets and strange creatures, including an imp with powerful breath and a three-headed, fire-breathing dragon (8 years before Ghidorah made its debut). Give it a try.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD


Red Sonja (1985) Brigitte Nielsen stars as the titular crimson-haired protagonist in her first and last adventure, directed by Richard Fleischer (who directed the previous year’s underrated Conan the Destroyer). There are some interesting sets (which seemed to have been inspired by another Dino De Laurentiis production, Flash Gordon), but the rest of the movie is strictly by the numbers. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears in a supporting role (but paradoxically gets top billing) as Kalidor (not to be confused with Conan, wink, wink), a lone warrior. Sonja and Kalidor are accompanied by Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr) an annoying little twerp, and his obsequious assistant Falkon (Paul L. Smith). Sandhal Bergman (who coincidentally starred with Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian) appears as the evil Queen Gedren (is there any other kind of queen in these types of flicks?), who killed Sonja’s parents. Gedren takes possession of a glowing green whatsit that could help her rule the world. Can Sonja and her companions thwart the queen? Will anyone care? Red Sonja isn’t as terrible as its reputation suggests, but the generic story provides no compelling reason to recommend it. If nothing else, it will likely remind you of better genre films.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray (Region 2) and DVD 


Conquest (1983) Lucio Fulci’s foray into sword & sorcery is a misstep, compared to some of his better giallo and horror films. Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti) and his magical bow matches wits (well, sort of) against an evil sorceress with a permanent wardrobe malfunction. He’s joined by Mace (Jorge Rivero), a lone warrior who has a vague affinity for animals. The film borrows from numerous, superior sources, including The Beastmaster and Quest for Fire, depicting a vague society where pre-bronze age humans rub elbows with an army of wolfmen. Conquest boasts copious amounts of gore and gratuitous nudity, which taken in the right light, are all well and good, but the film’s biggest offenses are a weak story and dull leads. The only surprising element is the climax, involving Ilias. It’s too bad the rest of the film is so rote and predictable.

Rating: **. Available on DVD