FilmJuice have my review of Alfred Hitchcock’s recently reissued huis clos drama Lifeboat.
Set during World War II, the film tells of a mismatched group of people who are forced to share a lifeboat when the Nazis torpedo their ship. Rather than turning this set-up into a thriller, Hitchcock places his emphasis firmly on the characters as they wrestle with the responsibilities and challenges of leadership. Indeed, the film can be taken as an exploration of Plato’s metaphorical Ship of State and the question of who is best suited to rule. Is it the successful businessman? the blue collar tough guy? Or is it the Nazi superman?
Looking beyond its political themes and its character studies, Lifeboat displays the fondness for small sets that reappears in such better-known Hitchcockian classics as Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, the film received a bevvy of Oscar Nominations for its searing black and white cinematography and the directorial flair required to set an entire 98-minute film on a solitary lifeboat.
Technically superb and filled with lovely cinematic moments, Lifeboat is a powerful reminder that there was more to Hitchcock than perfect pace and clockwork plotting.
Dig through the history of Horror and you will find, buried beneath the Vampires and the Werewolves, a more enduring monster. A monster that fits uneasily on the cinema screen because his depiction requires no make-up or special effects. A monster that looks exactly like you. A monster which, in fact, is you.
From Poe’s “William Wilson” (1838) to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) and Dostoyevsky’s The Double (1846) through to Kurosawa’s Doppelganger (2003), it is clear that one of the greatest fears humanity has is to wind up face-to-face with itself. Terror is dealing someone who knows all of your secrets, who knows all of your bullshit, who knows what you are capable of… and who can do it too. The doppelganger is a reminder that as much as humanity fears the Other, it fears the Self just as much. Perhaps there is a reason for this. Perhaps what we hate about the Other is what we hate about ourselves. Perhaps all hatred and fear is externalised and projected self-loathing? This idea has a nicely psychoanalytical feel to it. You can imagine Uncle Sigmund whispering it in your ear as you cough up his fee and prepare for the long slouch back home. Maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you. How far can we take this insight into our fears and terrors?
Johan Grimonprez’s documentary essay Double Take attempts to answer this question by using the doppelganger as a device for examining not only the politics of the Cold War but also the relationship between television and cinema.
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One of my greatest bugbears in fiction is the concept of the “well-drawn character”. If we wants to talk about a film in terms of its mis-en-scene or its shot selection then we can read books and treatises about such matters. Books filled with Eisenstein’s montages and Welles’ long takes. Similarly, if we want to talk about a book in terms of its narrative structure or its subtext then one can read Aristotle’s Poetics or the countless introductory guides to literary theory that fill the book shelves of people who really should be reading the original source material. These elements of fiction are well understood. Their subtleties catalogued. Their aesthetics understood. But what about the aesthetics of character construction? What distinguished a well-drawn character from a tissue-thin one-dimensional empty suit?
Presumably this area of aesthetic achievement is comparatively less well-travelled because, as humans, it should be obvious to us which characters are believable and which are not. We humans deal with each other quite a lot and so we presumably have a firm enough grasp of human psychology that we should recognise a character who is ‘off’ and unbelievable. Perhaps they behave in an erratic manner, perhaps they do not speak in a voice of their own, perhaps their actions do not follow from what we know of their character. In effect, we our ability to detect poorly drawn characters flows from the same place as our ability to read and interpret other people’s emotional states, the catalogue of theories, intuitions and received opinions that philosophers call Folk Psychology. However, some philosophers question the validity of folk psychology. They argue that most of our understanding of human behaviour is based on absurdly simplistic theories that are little better than superstitions. I share this doubt. This is why every act of characterisation strikes me as explicitly theoretical. Underpinned by all kinds of beliefs about the way humans work which may, in fact, be profoundly flawed or ludicrously simplistic.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie is a film that wears its Folk Psychological assumptions on its sleeve. It is a work of drama where the character arc of the main character is sketched not in bland generalities but in explicitly Psychoanalytical terms. The result is not only a fascinating character study, but also a meditation upon the moral status of psychoanalysis as an activity.
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