Hitchcock 101

Day Five, 1944 - 1946

by PopMatters Staff

16 June 2010

Three films of the mid-1940s found Hitchcock in an experimental mode. One takes place entirely in a small boat, another explores the idea of the psychedelic, and the third stretches out into the territory of film noir, while animating the post-war sense of global interconnectedness that presaged the Cold War.

Three films of the mid-1940s found Hitchcock in an experimental mode. One takes place entirely in a small boat—a sort of Sartrean “No Exit” on the water; another explores the idea of the psychedelic (somewhat avant le mot), attempting to make the mind visible on film; and the third stretches out into the territory of film noir, while animating the post-war sense of global interconnectedness that presaged the Cold War.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat appeared in theaters in 1944 as the famed director’s meditation on the ongoing world war. The film takes place entirely on a lifeboat on which American and British survivors of a sunken passenger ship are stuck with little food and water, no compass, and the constant threat of a German officer named Willy (Walter Slezak) who is plotting the survivors’ demise. Hitchcock designed the film as one of his famed “technical challenges,” in this case restricting himself to filming a 90-minute movie on a single small set. The experiment even forced Hitchcock to concoct his most ingenious cameo as the promotional subject in a weight loss advertisement on the back of a newspaper. Lifeboat remains one of the most fascinating films in Hitchcock’s illustrious canon due to its stark differences from the traditional Hitchcock formula, notably seen in the movie’s overt political content and restrictive setting.

Unlike Hitchcock’s other political films such as Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959), the politics in Lifeboat trump its romantic storylines. Each of the characters in Lifeboat stands as a metaphor for a particular aspect of the war. Chicago-born crew member John Kovac (John Hodiak) is vehemently anti-Nazi due to his Czechoslovakian heritage and his Communist convictions. On the other hand, the successful American businessman Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) is described as “more or less a Fascist” by Hitchcock and Rittenhouse’s actions mirror this ideology as he is initially accepting of the Nazi. Meanwhile, German-American sailor Gus Smith (William Bendix) can not only be seen as an all-American soldier with his constant chatter of baseball and dancing, but as a German expatriate who has left his homeland due to his vehement opposition to Hitler’s politics. Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson) also plays an important role on the boat as she abhors the violence in World War II and only joins the military as a nurse in order to save lives. British radio operator Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn) acts as the film’s representative of England. By including these divergent political views, Hitchcock is able to create a microcosm of how he viewed the war. As Hitchcock explained to Francois Truffaut, he “wanted to show that at the moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So, here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination”.

Hitchcock’s strong portrayal of Willy the Nazi was deemed controversial by critics such as Dorothy Thompson and Bosley Crowther upon the film’s premiere due to the character’s cunning intelligence, superior strength, and shrewd manipulation. Willy seems to represent the idealized Nazi that Hitler had envisioned as he is both smarter and stronger than the non-German characters on the lifeboat. Even as a prisoner-of-war, Willy is able to eventually take over the boat and row it toward a Nazi supply ship in order to turn the tables on the rest of the castaways. Connie (Tallulah Bankhead) even comments that Willy is “made of iron” while the others are “just flesh and blood, hungry and thirsty flesh and blood!”  However, Willy’s physical and mental prowess is necessary to Hitchcock’s main point about cooperation; if the survivors try to defeat Willy individually then they will fail, but if they work together then they can defeat a stronger opponent.

In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hitch biographer and scholar Donald Spoto denigrates Lifeboat’s visual style to “pictures of people talking,” a phrase he also uses to describe Rope’s (1948) long-take aesthetics. Hitchcock is certainly more restricted than usual in his visual storytelling due to the limitations in Lifeboat’s set; however, he still maintains the tenets of his editing in Lifeboat (something he almost completely avoids in Rope). Lifeboat contains some fascinating imagery such as the dark backlit shot when Joe (Canada Lee) is reciting the 23rd Psalm and a low-angle shot of Willy that makes his hands appear larger than life. The film’s montage is similarly captivating when Hitchcock does not merely follow the characters that are speaking. One such sequence follows Mrs. Higley’s (Heather Angel) emotional outburst after realizing her baby is dead. As she is mumbling and struggling with the other passengers, Hitchcock cuts to a shot of Willy yawning and lying down to show Willy’s inhuman indifference. Soon after, Hitchcock presents the group discovering Mrs. Higley’s suicide in complete silence. Through the sequence’s camerawork and cutting, Hitchcock conveys the group’s contrasting sadness and steadfastness. Likewise, the amputation of Gus’s leg is compelling due to the emotional information it conveys solely through visuals.

The key to Hitchcock’s cinema is the relationship between a film’s themes and its imagery. Lifeboat is distinctive from Hitchcock’s other movies because its mise-en-scène is more subtle in order to emphasize the film’s political content. Instead of building suspense through action sequences or cross-cutting between events, the characters’ political dilemma gains intrigue and tension with each moment spent adrift at sea as the boat begins to feel smaller and smaller. With its perfect blend of restrained imagery and political discourse, Lifeboat remains an underrated masterpiece.

Michael Rennett



Following five years of being loaned to various producers, Alfred Hitchcock rejoined forces with super-producer David O. Selznick for 1945’s Spellbound, a romantic thriller set against a background of Freudian psychology. The film’s concept was based on Selznick’s personal positive psychiatric experiences with Dr. May E. Romm, who would later become the film’s technical advisor, and Selznick wanted to create a movie that openly promoted the then-controversial psychoanalytic process.

Aside from its blunt psychological dialogue, the film’s plot tends to follow Hitchcock’s typical “Wrong Man” narrative structure. Dr. Murchison (played by the underrated Leo G. Carroll), the head of the Green Manors mental facility, is set to retire and be replaced by the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Edwardes. A man claiming to be Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at Green Manors and instantly strikes up a romantic relationship with the young and beautiful Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). Peterson quickly discovers that Edwardes is actually an amnesiac suffering from a guilt complex who now insists that he killed the real Edwardes and took his place. Peterson and this man must now solve the mystery of who he is, what happened to Edwardes, and why he is impersonating Edwardes before the police capture this man and his mind becomes locked into a completely repressed state.

The highlight of the film is the oft-discussed dream sequence created by the famous artist Salvador Dalí, the writer of Surrealist film classics Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’Or (1930) and the painter of The Persistence of Memory (1931). The short phantasmagoric scene features unusual images such as eyes drawn on curtains, blank playing cards, a faceless man, and a misshapen wheel. Dalí originally designed a twenty minute sequence containing more peculiar ideas such as Ingrid Bergman trapped in a plaster statue and covered in ants. However, Dalí’s vision was cut short due to the complicated filmmaking needed to realize his ideas and Selznick’s unwillingness to invest more money into what he deemed to be an extravagant sequence. Regardless of its length, this scene marks the first capturing of Surrealist art in a popular Hollywood film and remains astonishing to this day. Another highlight is Miklós Rózsa’s Academy Award-winning score which features lush, romantic strings that underscore the film’s love story as well as a pioneering use of a theremin (a weird instrument invented in 1928) to signify the amnesiac John Ballantine’s psychological episodes.

Despite these positive aspects, Spellbound remains in the middle-tier of Hitchcock classics. The explicit presentation of the psychoanalytic process detracts from the film, especially when compared to the understated psychological work that marks much of the rest of Hitchcock’s ouevre. The guilt complex from which Ballantine suffers can be seen more implicitly in Psycho and Marnie (1964) and a haunting dream sequence can likewise be found in Vertigo. Another detriment is Hitchcock explaining each of the images in Ballantine’s dream and using it as the key to solving the film’s mystery. This action undermines the random juxtapositions of Surrealism and turns it into fairly straightforward symbolism where each haunting image has a real-life counterpart.

Nevertheless, Spellbound remains an intriguing film. The chaotic relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick is placed at the forefront of the picture’s handling of the psychological content, and the dream sequence remains a landmark for 1940s Hollywood. Moreover, the film details the mental effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since Ballantine had recently ended his service as a doctor during World War II. PTSD was undiagnosed until the 1970s, but Spellbound provides a valuable look at how many returning veterans handled the turmoil and anguish of war. Furthermore, Spellbound marks the first collaboration between Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman which would reach its peak in their next film Notorious (1946). Spellbound is a fascinating misstep which provides an helpful look into how Hitchcock dealt with conflicting visions and less-than-stellar material.

Michael Rennett

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