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.
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.
The very first time that we see James Bond on film is in a shot that is a visual quote from Notorious. In Dr. No we see a gambling table where the focus is on a woman struggling with her luck at cards. She is with the man who controls the bank, whose face we cannot see. After losing to him several times she asks his name and he replies, speaking for the first time and lighting a cigarette, “Bond. James Bond.” The shot replicates our introduction to Devlin (Cary Grant) in Notorious. In Hitchcock’s film the camera shows us a drunken party in the home of Alicia Huberman, where she is urging everyone to drink up, irritated that the man whose back we see in the foreground won’t join in. The camera, after an extended shot, gradually pans around to reveal the famous visage of Cary Grant. The mechanics of the shot are somewhat different in Dr. No, but the effect is the same.
Bond’s intro is not the only thing that was borrowed from Hitchcock for the spy series. Like Notorious, the Bond films feature a handsome spy who travels to exotic international locales. And just as Bond meets beautiful women and charming villains, so Devlin in Notorious falls in love with the beautiful Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who in the course of her duty woos and marries Alexander Sebastian, who is as charismatic and likable as Auric Goldfinger, and in service of just as evil a cause.
Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s most beloved films not merely because it is one of his finest espionage films in the tradition of The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and North by Northwest, but because it is his greatest romantic film. There are romances in most of his films (especially those involving Cary Grant), but none of his other movies hinges so completely on the culmination the central love story. North by Northwest is an espionage thriller with a romance in the background; Notorious is a romance with espionage in the background.
The romance works partly because of the chemistry between the leads, but it works mostly because of the brilliance of the script by Ben Hecht. One of the greatest screenwriters of the studio era — apart from the many scripts on which he received credit, Hecht was the leading script doctor of the age and worked on literally hundreds of films anonymously — Hecht crafted a story that was both enormously entertaining and politically prescient. Both a passionate Zionist and among the first well-known Americans intent on exposing the Nazi atrocities in Europe against the Jews, Hecht crafted a story of Nazis escaping to South America years before anyone thought of the continent as a refuge for former members of the Third Reich. But while on a subtle level it is a message film, Hecht never lost focus on the central love story and at no point in the film does our attention to the love triangle between Alicia, Devlin, and Sebastian (Claude Rains, in one of his greatest roles) flag.
It is a widely repeated myth — and one that Hitchcock loved to foster — that he crafted every scene ahead of time and storyboarded every moment. It is true that he did occasionally carefully plan scenes out ahead of time, but in fact there is far more contingency in his films than people appear willing to concede. No film shows this more than Notorious. Many major scenes underwent revision during shooting, including both the very beginning and the end. In fact, several endings were planned and more than one partially shot. One of the most famous scenes in Notorious was the long kissing scene — in which Hitchcock evaded the Production Board’s rules that people could not kiss beyond a certain length of time by having Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant engage in a long string of short kisses, all of them within the time limit dictated by the Code — during which their dialogue and most of their blocking was adlibbed.
The romance between Devlin and Alicia is one of Hollywood’s greatest stories about the redemption of a bad girl through love. In initial story conferences, there was thought of actually coding Alicia as a prostitute, but everyone recognized that this would never have made it past the censors. Instead, they made Alicia into a sexually promiscuous (but nonprofessional) hard-drinking party girl, and much of the tension in the film stems from the undeniable love that she and Devlin feel for each other almost immediately. Although Devlin falls just as hard for her as she does for him, he struggles throughout the film with his Puritanical morality and his difficulty in accepting Alicia’s colorful past. While much of the plot resolution concerns the investigation of Sebastian’s involvement with the Nazis, an equal and perhaps more important conflict lies with Devlin’s struggle with his own moralistic attitudes. For Alicia, she falls for Devlin immediately and for her he is very definitely her knight in shining armor, if only he would deign to rescue the maiden. The film’s climax comes not in the solving of the mystery of the uranium ore, but with Devlin’s realization that Alicia is in trouble, which forces him to acknowledge just how deeply she feels for him. In the film’s last scene he does become a knight errant and rescues his damsel in distress. The way in which Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia — despite being near death from poison — expresses her ecstasy at Devlin finally professing his love for her very nearly matches the impact of her loving stoicism at the end of Casablanca (interestingly, a scene in which Claude Rains was also in). It is easily the finest romantic moment in any of Hitchcock’s films. It is not a surprise that Notorious made both the American Film Institute’s list of the one hundred finest romance films and their list of the one hundred greatest thrillers.
One scene that was envisioned ahead of time and meticulously executed was the famous overhead elevator shot at the party. Because they had no cranes that fit the needs for the shot, carpenters constructed a wooden elevator on the set in the middle of the foyer of Sebastian’s mansion. The scene begins with the camera high overhead over the party goers and then descends slowly to the floor while zooming in on Alicia’s hand, in which she cradles the key to the wine cellar that she has stolen, a wine cellar that Devlin and Alicia want to investigate. It is rightfully celebrated as one of Hitchcock’s most brilliant visual moments and one of the most striking shots in the film. The film is also notable for several subjective camera shots, such as when Alicia looks at Devlin upside down early in the film to simulate her hangover and late in the film to express her impaired physical state from being poisoned. As brilliant as this camerawork is, in Notorious, as in all his work, people on the set said that they never saw Hitchcock look through the viewfinder of a camera, always trusting instead that his cinematographers would get the shot right after he had explained it to them.
Hitchcock loved to promote the myth that his references to uranium ore in the film led to his being surveilled by the FBI. Biographers have since used the Freedom of Information Act and have failed to uncover any evidence to support Hitchcock’s story. But it does make a lovely legend and it reveals the kinds of strategies — like the myth that he completely envisioned every scene of his films before beginning production — that Hitchcock loved to engage in waging his never-ending public relations campaign. Although a master storyteller, he was just as intent on telling stories about his telling of stories. The uranium ore contained in champagne bottles remains one of the most famous of all his MacGuffins and actually did lend far more urgency to the story than any other such device in any of his films.
By any standard Notorious stands as one of Hitchcock’s greatest films and is certainly, along with Shadow of a Doubt, the finest of his films from the forties.