The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #13

There were times – thankfully not many – when Alfred Hitchcock was moved to make a film solely to explore a technical gimmick that caught his fancy or to solve some purely cinematic problem.The most famous of these instances, 1948's Rope demonstrated just how disastrous such indulgences could be (in Technicolor, yet); for despite his oft-retailed and successfully marketed pose as the Master of Suspense, totally preoccupied with the mechanics of his craft (and then only for the purpose of manipulating audiences), Hitchcock's more everlasting creations carried what was at least an equivalent interest in matters beyond their physical production. But explaining to an interviewer the forces that drove intensely emotional works like Vertigo, or his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, would not have been an easy thing to do (assuming for the moment that such things can even be expressed); explaining them to hero worshippers like François Truffaut was a doomed enterprise from the start. It was better, safer, far less strenuous to pretend he only cared about montage and Macguffens.

It was, if nothing else, one way of staying alive in the hopeless minefield of Hollywood.

The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes make a limp return to this blog with a discussion of that "microcosm of the War," 1944's Lifeboat, a film whose existence Hitchcock freely admits was inspired by the challenge its rather limited and claustrophobic setting posed. And for once it's easy to take him at his word, because regardless of how many defenders it has among the faithful, Lifeboat has almost nothing going for it, being an apallingly simplistic wartime fable – with none of the rude emotional power that often drives such primal narratives – populated by one tiresome stock character after another. What else could have attracted him to the project? So taken was Hitchcock with surmounting the technical issues inherent to a film set entirely within the confines of a lifeboat, in fact, that he seems blissfully unaware (even in 1962) of just how hackneyed John Steinbeck's story and Jo Swerling's screenplay really were.

True to form, François Truffaut applauds Hitchcock's labor on one of the worst films he had ever put his name to (while noting the rather limited dimensions of its human landscape), declaring it (get this) "psychological" and highly "moral" . . . this from someone who during the war frequently professed his admiration for Vichy's original old goat, Marshall Petain.

A discussion of Lifeboat's largely negative critical reception . . . and Hitchcock's brief return to Britain to make two wartime propaganda films (Aventure malgache and Bon voyage) . . . leads into a somewhat tedious footslog through 1945's Spellbound.


Vanwall said...

Lifeboat is like watching someone else's workmanlike 'C' film, and as unlike Hitch's other films as anything could be. It's actually hard to watch. I actually don't consider "Rope" to be a disaster - a curiosity, but certainly not a failure in any great way - stagey work from Hitchcock worked in this case, at least for me.

Tom Sutpen said...

With respect to Rope, I'll plead guilty to indulging in hyperbole from time to time, but on reflection I'd still stand by the word "disastrous", at least in the context of Hitchcock in the 40s and 50s . . . which is to say Hitchcock at the summit of his powers as a filmmaker. I know there are those who admire it (just as there are those who admire Lifeboat, but to me it's horrifically stagy in every respect (James Stewart never gave a worse or more shrill performance in his career), and the whole 10-minute take gimmick . . . which from all available evidence was Hitchcock's sole rationale for making the thing . . . is the emptiest of empty techniques. In the service of slightly better material perhaps it could have added something (though I doubt it), but for that dumb Leopold & Loeb rehash its utterly meaningless.

Stacia said...

I bought the Hitchcock/Truffaut book a few months ago, based on a comment (probably one of your comments, Tom) on rec.arts.movies.past-films. I'm hoping it's as interesting as it looks, if not necessarily informative.

Cinebeats said...

Even though I totally disagree with your opinion about Rope Tom, I'm happy to see that you're sharing more of these Hitchcock/Truffaut audio clips!

SomeNYGuy said...

In an age when multiple sequels to comic book adaptations drive the industry and soft-headed crap like Crash and Children of Men are considered "serious" (and even more preposterously, "liberal") you're still bashing Hitchcock and Truffaut?

I've lost count of how many times I've seen Lifeboat since I was a child and it never fails to thrill me. I'll take a second-tier "technical exercise" from Hitchcock over most of today's filmmakers' most personal works (which often tend to be about other, better movies anyway) any day of the week.

hcbeck said...

Hitchcock was less engaging but sometimes more interesting when he indulged his impulse to experiment. That some of the films aren't quite as good as the others makes them easier to dissect, I think. But some of the experimental films are held in highest regard--Vertigo, Rear Window. Marnie is truly bizarre. Psycho certainly.

I've noticed several--six, if memory serves--edits in Rope. Not film-change cuts but actual regular every day edits.

I like Lifeboat, like seeing Tallulah. For a fun moment, read what Burgess Meredith has to say about his encounter with Tallulah in his autobiography, how she met him at the door, her hotel suite full of people, completely starkers, how she stuffed him with coke and threw him off her in the middle, or rather, towards the end, of their near-consummation with an exclamation. I think she said something along the lines of, "for god's sake don't come in me--I'm engaged to Jock Whitney!!"