Here’s a film that’s never quite got its due in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, an atypical feature for “the Master,” which posed a difficult challenge: sustaining tension and intrigue in the most confined of spaces.
The premise: During the Second World War, a dozen survivors of a torpedoed boat pull a man out of the Atlantic, only to discover that he’s the Nazi responsible for sinking their craft in the first place. Do they forgive him, shun him, or chop him up into sauerbraten? Even given the film’s intrinsic limitations, “Lifeboat” still manages to deliver those classic Hitchcock elements – men and women in extreme situations brought to the precipice of despair and violence.
And while everyone recognizes Hitch as the Master of Suspense, few know that he could challenge Bob Hope or Groucho Marx for “Master of the One-Liner.”
During the filming of 1944’s “Lifeboat,” for example, starlet Tallulah Bankhead played the intrepid reporter Connie Porter. With Bankhead as his leading lady, Hitchcock had his hands full. Though descended from a proud and distinguished Southern family, Tallulah (whose success occurred mainly in the theatre) was proud to be contrary and consistently naughty. She once famously described herself as “pure as the driven slush,” and she wasn’t far off the mark.
A notorious on-set story: Bankhead had to climb a ladder every morning to reach the water tank where filming took place. Whenever the actress climbed, there would be scores of crew members watching her ascent. It soon became apparent why: Bankhead never wore underwear.
When a concerned bystander finally brought this matter to Hitchcock’s attention, at first the great man looked genuinely puzzled. Finally he replied, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, makeup, or hair dressing.”
The Master’s humor could also be withering. Earlier on in “Lifeboat’s” production, vain actress Mary Anderson, fishing for compliments no doubt, asked the director, “Which side is my best?” Hitch leveled his gaze and said, “You’re sitting on it, my dear.”
Who knew such a dark mind could also be so viciously funny?