I recently had the opportunity to see Hitchcock’s Lifeboat on the big screen again.
The 1944 film follows nine people in a small boat in the north Atlantic after their Allied ship is torpedoed by a German submarine during World War II. The British and American survivors have all the diversity convenient to brew conflict and unlikely alliances—they span from a bejeweled woman to crewmen to a business tycoon. But the presence of the German U-boat commander, rescued from the sea after his sub is destroyed, creates the central tension in the film.
I’ve seen Lifeboat perhaps four times, but only twice in a theater.1 A lot has been written about it, as with any Hitchcock film, though much justifiably centers on Tallulah Bankhead not wearing underwear on the set.2 You’ll also find mentions of John Steinbeck’s anger over the dumbing down of his black character3 and a few musings on the damaging controversy that gutted the film’s box office performance. Regarding the latter, several critics and other influential voices in ’44 felt that the German U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) was portrayed as too competent, too gentle-faced and too appealing in every regard to represent a hated enemy.4 This reportedly spurred Twentieth Century Fox to cut promotion efforts and the $1.5 million film did poorly in theaters.
What’s never received proper ink, in my opinion, is the kiss Tallulah Bankhead gives William Bendix early in the film. I rank it as one of the most erotic kisses in the history of cinema.5
It occurs at 40.50 here, but read the below before watching it.
As a movie kiss, it’s too brief, cut away from too soon and, at least in the traditional sense, passionless. It will be underwhelming to the detached observer who views it in a disembodied clip. Like all erotic kisses, its carnality comes from its context.
This four-second kiss deserves acclaim for its nearly unblinking profanity.
The brawd and the palooka
The public personas of the two actors engaging in the liplock give it most of its power. That said, neither Tallulah Bankhead nor William Bendix would be on a list of my top 50 favorite actors, if I had such a list (and I’d probably be getting into Ricky Schroder territory after 35 or so).
In Bankhead’s case, this is likely due to my limited exposure to her. The Broadway star made few films and was only referred to as an archetype by the time I heard her name uttered. Any deep-voiced actress who took on a sultry role was a “Tallulah Bankhead type.” Since this was mainly thrown at Kathleen Turner during my formative years, and I wasn’t a fan of Kathleen Turner during my formative years, which are the only years any male would be a Kathleen Turner fan, I never felt the need to investigate the Tallulah Bankhead references further.
By the time I finally saw her film leavings, of which Lifeboat is the best, I categorized Bankhead as a waify, high-browish Barbara Stanwyck with better gin on her breath. And maybe the only woman who ever existed who could say “dahling” without sounding like she was doing a bad Tallulah Bankhead impression.
William Bendix, God bless him, wouldn’t crack the top 300 on my non-existent list. I think I saw his Babe Ruth movie when I was six and wondered why they couldn’t get Elmer Fudd for the part.
Hitchcock brought in Bendix to play the injured coal stoker after an actor named Murray Alper became ill during shooting. Scanning Murray Alper’s (mostly uncredited) screen roles up until 1943 offers a hint at how important Hitchcock regarded the casting choice for Gus the gangrenous seaman.
William Bendix was Murray Alper’s understudy.
I can’t recall ever seeing Murray Alper in a movie or television show, but this sounds about right to me.
I don’t like disparaging William Bendix. He was a sweet guy for all I know. And as far as stock Hollywood characters go, I would never slight the “big lovable palooka.” In the ’30s and ’40s, having one pop into your film for a minute here and there injected a little comic relief, probably gave some guy a break from his security job and maybe even let your B-movie lead grab a nap in a prop closet. It was a venerable device that could momentarily distract an audience from noticing how bad some production was. Like putting a little pilgrim hat on turducken.
If William Bendix had been utilized this way, I’d have no complaints.
But they put this dude in entire movies.
After his first three minutes on screen, you get the first tickle of vomit from big lovable palooka overload. Then you start worrying that he might not be leaving anytime soon.
I think he indirectly helped sink Hitchcock’s movie, and not because he was awful. On the contrary, William Bendix is the least awful in Lifeboat as I’ve ever seen him. I think it’s because when the fatherly Slezak finally pushes him off the boat, it gives you another uncomfortable reason to like that damn German.
So the kiss in Lifeboat started a little behind the line for me.
That dash of high-low
Bankhead was playing a mink-coated columnist, Constance “Connie” Porter, who snagged rich husbands by masterfully pretending to be high-class even though she was reared in the slums of south Chicago.6 She had the looks of a Rafael vision but the grit of a girl who lost her virginity behind a pool hall.
As a Hollywood personality, Bankhead perfectly embodied this mix of penthouse and gutter. It defined her to the movie-going public and, seemingly, to herself, at least given her openness about slutting around fairly indiscriminately with both sexes. That’s still her persona today to the relatively few people for whom she’s still famous.
William Bendix was playing William Bendix, as usual, though in this role he happened to be named Gus Smith—a laborer with a Brooklyn accent (a Bendix standard) who had joined the merchant marines and was in the ship’s boiler room when the torpedo struck. This big lovable palooka lives for the dream that he’ll get back home and cut some rug with his beloved Rosie, a goodtime girl from the neighborhood who isn’t hurting for dance partners and has duped Gus into making her the beneficiary of his life insurance policy.
He’s a clueless likeable oaf—the ol’ William Bendix special—but he’s given gravitas by needing to have his rotting foot amputated by the German sub commander (a surgeon in his pre-war life).
Gus is ginning up for the knifing, literally, when the kiss happens. At this moment, Bankhead and Bendix are two over-the-top stereotypes that represent the polar forces of humanity. He is desire and its dumb noble wanting. She is sex and its offering. She’s too much for his imagination but would be little without it. He should be irrelevant to her, but could become a viable man should the animalistic simplicity of our species take hold—say, in that Chicago pool hall, or in a lifeboat pitching in the Atlantic.
Through the sturdier proxy of Kovac (John Hodiak), a fellow crewman who Bankhead cleaves to after enough miserable weeks at sea, Bendix and his ilk will suffice for her. Her escape from her beginnings was always a wishful illusion, after all.
But Bankhead is not yet reduced to that reality when Bendix blurts out his drunk “hiya babe,” as Slezak limbers his chubby meat hooks and prepares to sterilize his knife in a flame. It’s early in the ordeal. Thirst, hunger and body stink haven’t weakened her yet. She’s still the prominent columnist in a tough spot, still Cartier’ed, her dirty-face past only alive in her moxie and competence (she’s the only one who can speak German to the U-boat captain, for Chrissakes).
When the almost-surely-dying Bendix beckons her, Bankhead seems to reply good-naturedly, giving him what he wants to hear because that’s what a right dame would do.
“Hi, toots,” she says gamely.
He asks for a kiss. It’s rhetorical. The atom of desperation Gus should have, certainly would have since no amount of hooch would get that Nazi knife out of his brain, is not transmitted by Bendix. But that’s all right. We get that the big lovable palooka is in his happy place—the bar at the dance hall, couraged, trying to make some time with a dish who might tousle his hair before giving him the brush. He’s asking God for five hundred dollars.
With that request, Connie from the block surfaces wordlessly. She moves onto his mouth. There’s no hesitation, no rush, no deliberation. She kisses him sexually without feeling or charity. She doesn’t linger, but she’s absolutely not quick. It’s the smallest taste of the comforts she can give a man, magnified inconceivably.
It hits Gus like an axe. At least for a few seconds, until his boatmates’ intentions crystallize again.
He’s been with a woman now. Death is a little smaller.
1Like almost all films made prior to 1965, Lifeboat needs to be viewed on a 30-foot screen in a darkened auditorium with a captive audience to be fully appreciated. Many older films just aren’t “big” enough for small screens—in the sense that they lack the frequent action and visual candy needed to keep the attention of a person armed with a remote control. It suffices to say that if you could take your $6,000 TV off the wall and play gin rummy on it, it’s too small to properly watch a Hitchcock film.
2Supposedly, after receiving complaints about Bankhead putting her genitals on display for everyone below her, Hitchcock quipped that he wasn’t sure whether it was a concern for the costume department or hairdressing.
3Steinbeck wrote a 100-page novella (which has never been published) specifically to be adapted into a script for the film, and he reportedly hated seeing the black ship steward Joe Spencer (Canada Lee) diluted into a “stock comedy negro,” as he put it. He asked Twentieth Century Fox to remove his name from anything connected with Lifeboat. The studio ignored him and Steinbeck’s name is plastered on everything regarding the film to this day.
4The New York Times review gave a muted agreement to this sentiment, basically saying that it probably wasn’t a good time to make Germans look like the only people on earth who knew what they were doing. In January ‘44, both critics and studio heads needed Germans to be caricatures of stupidity and evil. Hitchcock didn’t deliver that, and enthusiasm for his film imploded. Of course, Lifeboat is interesting today only because he took that path.
5Lists of “best movie kisses” usually include the amber-drenched fencepost scene in Gone With the Wind, the beach rollicking in From Here to Eternity, that inverted half-mask business in Spider-Man and too many other snippets of gooey footage to mention. All are sufficient. Pent-up lust exploding into animated Frenching is exactly what I expect a movie kiss to be. And it doesn’t need to be Chinese calculus. You’re not going to capture the Times Square mouth rape every time you film actors swapping saliva, and you don’t need to.
6The character’s name is a nice high-low combo that gets her pedigree across without being too obvious about it. Unlike, say, Olivia Lipshitz.
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