Out to Sea: Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965) & Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944)
I. Ship of Fools (1965)
“When I think of the things I have seen on this ship. The stupid cruelties. The vanities. We talk about values? There’re no values. The dung we base our lives on…We are the intelligent, civilized people who carry out orders we are given. No matter what they may be. Our biggest mission in life is to avoid being fools. And we wind up being the biggest fools of all” (Dr Wilhelm Schumann in Ship of Fools).
Based on a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools tells of a passenger ship sailing from Mexico and bound for Germany. On board, the people are from all walks of life and classes, from a Countess (played by Simone Signoret) who lost everything to desperate Spanish farm workers. They are also one artistic couple having a serious relationship trouble, a middle-aged Nazi sympathiser, an aging southern belle (played by Vivien Leigh), who is in search of “something”, and a troupe of Spanish dancers, among others. The film focuses on each of those in turn, taking rounds, and could be said to represent a series of “film vignettes”, rather than a straightforward plot moving to one cinematic climax. Directed by Stanley Kramer (Look Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)), who always promoted films with important social issues, Ship of Fools is distinguished by its unusual presentation, incredible cast, and the acting of Simone Signoret and Oskar Werner.
Ship of Fools presents “a microcosm of the 1930s society”. The ship is one place where different people meet and their interests and perceptions start to collide. The vessel really becomes a hotbed for prejudices, hypocrisies, sexual tensions and class snobbiness. One couple that captures all of the attention in Ship of Fools is Simone Signoret (Les Diaboliques (1955), Room at the Top (1959)) and Oskar Werner (Fahrenheit 451 (1966)) in the role of Spanish countess and the ship’s doctor respectively. These two develop the most curious relationship on screen, and their performances are full of tenderness and nuance. Katharine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story (1940)) was set to play the role of Mary Treadwell, an aging Southern belle, but when she became unavailable, Vivien Leigh took that role and also delivered a memorable last performance. Channelling Blanche from A Streetcar named Desire (1951), Leigh perfects a woman in this story who still cannot believe that her happiest days are already behind her and who, subsequently, finds herself being taken advantage of by one man’s lust and ego. Curiously, because the film has so many broken, disillusioned, depressed or misunderstood women (who all seek one kind of love), including divorcee Mary Treadwell, broken-by-life Countess, frustrated Jenny, shy Elsa and completely-dominated-by-one-man flamenco dancers, Ship of Fools is also an interesting thematic portrayal of the position of woman in society and her eventual plight given a certain class status.
The film has also something to say on class positions and discrimination. It opens with the statement from Carl Glocken (Michael Dunn), a man with a form of dwarfism, who later joints other “outcasts” of the ship, including Julius Lowenthal, a Jewish salesman. In fact, the ship is “constructed” of class sections. At the top are the captain’s cabin and his table, and the lowest section is accorded to Spanish farm labours, who are forced to eat and sleep on the ship’s deck. This arrangement may also remind of the train arrangement in a film Snowpiercer (2013), which also segregated “the undesirables”, the middle class and the ruling class. On the ship, anti-Semitic sentiments hit powerfully, especially since we now know that they so accurately predict events that are to take place in the WWII. Each character in the story starts to “feed off” another, and, in their interactions, important truths are told or hinted. Nothing is “spared”, nor antisemitism, nor racism, nor sexism, nor ableism, nor ageism for that matter.
Critics defined Ship of Fools as “Grand Hotel (1932) at sea”, and there is more than a fair share of truth in that. Perhaps the film is too long (in fact, it runs two and a half hours); there is no question that some (melodramatic) scenes should have been cut; and the allegory of “the ship of fools” is thin, but it still manages to have many things going for it. Its cast is perfect, and the tender relationship between the ship’s doctor and the Countess is a kind of a candle light, existing amidst the dark mess that is other people’s prejudices, hatred (including antisemitism and sexism) and personal, often self-inflicted, tragedies in the story. Maybe a way to enjoy this unhurried film is to have few expectations and to just “go with the flow” of each “film vignette” presented, paying attention to philosophical insights given and presented from very different points of view. 8/10
II. Lifeboat (1944)
Based on a novella by John Steinbeck, Lifeboat is the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s “limited setting” films (see also Rope (1948) and Dial M for Murder (1954)) and a controversial film. In this story, the WWII is raging, and a submarine and a ship’s battle results in a few survivors who gather in one large lifeboat. Independent and bossy woman reporter Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) takes the lead among the survivors, who also include a wealthy industrialist Rittenhouse, a aggressive engine room crewman Kovac, a mother and her baby, and, unexpectedly – one German from the enemy ship, among others. As their food starts to run out and despair sets in, tensions break out among the survivors, and when a German surgeon suggests an amputation of one man’s gangrened leg, the crew seem to reach the point of irreversibility.
One could always count on Alfred Hitchcock on points of atmosphere and suspense in a story, and Lifeboat is no different, even if it is a survival story set in one single floating lifeboat. The film opens with Connie Porter, a lady reporter, sitting coolly and comfortably in a lifeboat amidst her luggage, including her camera and typewriter. Nothing signals that she is a survivor of a major disaster and in want of anything. “Looks like you managed to get some of your stuff on board?“, she is asked. “Just the bare necessities“, she answers. Hitchcock is definitely interested in this situation of Connie Porters still being mindful of her material possessions and, later, of other trivialities, such as her appearance, when people around her are on the point of, or, actually, dying. As other survivors gather around Porter, she hardly changes her nonchalant demeanour. Some scenes that follow are shot as though we are waiting for a murder to happen or for a suspect to be caught. That means that there is some of that Hitchcockian “suspense”, and it probably reaches its peak as we are waiting for an amputation by the German surgeon to take place. Otherwise, amidst food shortage and bad weather, and apart from the enmity towards the German, there is hardly any drama in the midst, and the material here even feels too thin for a full picture film.
Lifeboat is now considered one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films and it probably is. Tallulah Bankhead shines as a steely woman determined not to be swayed by anything, even death, and the survival theme is presented from an interesting, sometimes purely “Hitchcockian” perspective. However, it is also true that the film’s individual scenes and points of tension are much more exciting than this film is or feels overall. 7/10