Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, from Jaded Sophisticate to Humane Survivor

“Lifeboat”, 1944 | Twentieth Century Fox

 
A solitary and impeccably dressed Tallulah Bankhead appearing in a lifeboat afloat a foggy ocean opens Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. She remains impassive as drifting survivors from a ship attacked by a German U-boat start to fill the lifeboat. She is one of the most self-sufficient and independent and complex character developments of Hitchcock’s heroines and one of my personal favourites, alongside Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels in The Birds. She simply dominates the film.

Her character’s trajectory is indeed similar to Tippi’s in The Birds, “starting out as a jaded sophisticate and, in the course of the physical ordeal, gradually becoming more natural and humane,” as François Truffaut himself remarked. Bankhead’s Connie Porter is a journalist, reportedly inspired by real life liberal political columnist Dorothy Thompson who subsequently attacked the film for this very reason, but she is also a woman of means and therefore has an arrogant sense of entitlement – “You know what is wrong with your writing? It’s always about yourself, not about the people you write about,” one of the fellow survivors tells her at one point. While the others have indeed had to make it to the boat, she occupied her place from the very beginning there, as if she were entitled to it, not because she had to fight the elements to get there as the others did. And she is perfectly done up. She is wearing a mink coat, a golden bracelet, a gift from her first husband and one she never parts with, her white blouse and suit and high-heel sandals are still perfectly intact and her hair is swept into an elegant coiffure, a delightful and intriguing sight amidst the other passengers. Her expensive clothes and jewellery are also a symbol of high civilization and social status in the modern democratic society.

Her moral itinerary couldn’t therefore be better punctuated than by the discarding of her purely material objects, going, just like Tippi, “from brittle artifice to melting vulnerability,” as Camille Paglia described Melanie Daniels’ arc in her brilliant essay on The Birds, part of the BFI Film Classics series. Tallulah Bankhead, who was an established theater leading lady in London and New York and about whom Marlon Brando later regretfully said that she had hardly had a chance to show her real talent, was forty-two when she appeared in Lifeboat (1944). And as it always was the case with Hitchcock and his actors, he got the best of her and this probably remains her finest screen moment. As her callous glamour is ousted by fear and neediness, she is stripped bare of every material object that used to define her, right down to her torn suit and disheveled loose hair by the end of the film, the loss of every single item being given a dramatic form: the typewriter that falls into the water, the mink coat that she gives to the mother who drowns herself after she loses her child, the gold bracelet that is used as fish bait when the survivors are starving.
 

Tallulah Bankhead in “Lifeboat”, 1944 | Twentieth Century Fox

 
Lifeboat is a tightly claustrophobic drama happening on an open boat – Hitchcock never let the camera leave the boat and there is no musical score at all. It is a stripped-down film, with no adornment, with everything going on on the psychological front, as the small group of humans struggle for survival against elemental nature and against each other. Just like Connie Porter and her things, one by one, each of the characters loses their sense of purpose and, amidst the backdrop of the Second World War, the film offers a view on humankind as mistrust and conspiracy and division take over every sense of judgment too.
 

Tallulah Bankhead in “Lifeboat”, 1944 | Twentieth Century Fox

 
 

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