Sunday, February 6, 2011

Two by The Master of Suspense

In early January, the Castro Theater had a Hitchcock series which featured some of his less celebrated works. In other words, Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Birds and other famous titles were not on the program.

I would like to have seen more of the films but I was out of town for most of the series. I made it there one night to see a double feature.

Lifeboat starring Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix & Hume Cronyn; (1944)
The Wrong Man starring Henry Fonda & Vera Miles; (1956)

Both films were directed by Hitchcock. John Steinbeck wrote the novella upon which Lifeboat was based.

Lifeboat is a well known film. As I watched the film, it reminded me of a "locked room" suspense film - one of those film where people are confined (usually in a large and ominous house) and one-by-one, they keep turning up dead. I always though Hitchcock made good use of locations and sets (Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest or San Francisco in Vertigo) so setting an entire film in a small lifeboat on the ocean seems limiting to the story.

Hitchcock handled the confined space with skill. I was more distracted by the jingoistic propaganda which is not surprising since the film is about American and British civilians sunk by a Nazi U-boat. Given there was only one Nazi in the lifeboat, the opportunity for twists and turns are limited. Willy the Nazi (Walter Slezak) commits his shameful acts (not sharing his water) and crimes (murder) on screen for the audience to see. That the other survivors don't suspect him until the end is a form of suspense I suppose. It also seemed to be pointed jabs to those who favored appeasement or tried to humanize the enemy. Indeed, Willy is portrayed as a wily and cunning villain more in line with stereotypes of Japanese treachery than Nazi barbarism. Willy is able to get a half-hearted, anti-Semitic comment before pushing William Bendix overboard.

Viewed 67 years after it was released, I found the depiction of the civilians to be ludicrous. Meaty Willy comes onboard, convinces them that the only chance for survival is to head for Nazi shipping lanes and starts to row the boat to the while singing makeshift sea shanties. All smiles (Sig Ruman must have studied Slezak's performance prior to Stalag 17), the devious Willy soft sells his nefarious plans on the 10 or so civilians in the boat. Simply put, I couldn't suspend disbelief.

Tallulah Bankhead was praised for her performance. From my perspective, she was caricaturizing herself or at least, her public persona. I just think much of Lifeboat or perhaps expected more from Hitchcock. Slezak nails his part but Willy was a man among children in that boat so seeing him manipulate the other characters was not very entertaining.


The Wrong Man was a film I was not familiar with. It didn't feel like a Hitchcock film. It was based on a true story but the detached method Hitchcock used made the film seem like a cross between a documentary and an episode of Law and Order.

Henry Fonda, playing the everyman again, is Manny Balestrero, a jazz musician falsely accused of a series of robberies. Aside: Does Henry Fonda look like a Manny Balestrero? Balestrero believes his innocence will trump everything but film audiences know better. Some by-the-book police detectives and earnest but inaccurate witness statements put Fonda on the brink of prison. If that's not enough, Balestrero's wife (Vera Miles) begins to crack under the strain of the police investigation.

The film isn't about intrigue and plots. Balestrero's predicament is presented as something that could happen to any of us...if we happen to have a criminal doppelgänger. Hitchcock takes more time and effort into chronicling the criminal justice system. We see the line-up, the booking process and Balestrero being processed into jail (was that the Tombs?). Balestrero holds up as well as any innocent man could which means he is one or two steps from breaking down. The process is impersonal and dehumanizing and doubly so if you are innocent.

The film could only end one way in 1954. In 2010, we get Conviction which shows a man wrongly convicted and spending years in jail. In 1954, the production code probably forbid such a plotline so we get a man wrongly tried but never exonerated because the systems caught its error before it got to that point.

The "innocent man" story is old as time but can still be compelling when told with skill which Hitchcock undoubtedly has. As I said though, Hitchcock's documentary style overshadows the plot. That's not necessarily a bad thing because I think the scenes are as powerful as any of the scripted dialog scenes.

I was disappointed with Lifeboat but The Wrong Man was compelling drama and a little different from Hitchcock's standard fare.

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