Out of the Celluloid Closet

This overlooked Hitchcock film is full of hot, naked camp appeal

The year was 1944, and the war was dragging on forever. So much was at stake, and it felt like the fate of the democratic world hung in the balance.

Into this taught, desperately stressful atmosphere launched Lifeboat, the John Steinbeck-penned, Hitchcock-adapted classic that gave voice to everyone’s feeling of supreme wartime dis-ease. Following the fates of a handful of shipwrecked survivors from a U-boat attack, Lifeboat pits man against man, enemy against enemy, and most importantly, Tallulah Bankhead against a bare-chested, tattooed John Hodiak.

Here’s where I confess that Tallulah Bankhead was the reason I came to this movie in the first place. A campy legend as famous for her bon mots as for her lesbian proclivities, Bankhead’s film career never exactly took off. When her competitor Bette Davis was cast in the film version of the role Bankhead made famous onstage—Southern matriarch Regina in The Little Foxes—Tallulah was busy screwing just about every female starlet available, and their husbands. At one point, after meeting Davis’s other rival, Joan Crawford, Bankhead scandalized the young star by stating: “darling I’ve had an affaire with your husband…you’ll be next!”

Bisexual chaos was Tallulah’s middle name, and in Lifeboat, she would finally get a role that lived up to her legendary talents. In the Hitchcock film, Bankhead plays Connie Porter: “a spoiled-rotten, mink-coated, cosmopolitan writer,” and the only survivor who can speak German to the U-boat captain who also managed climb aboard. She’s also extremely randy for another passenger on board, a young man from the “gutters” of Chicago who she can’t stop ogling once he takes his shirt off.

And let me add that he takes his shirt off quite early and for no reason at all. But once he does, Tallulah starts looking at him the way Samantha Jones looks at the sailors strolling down 5th avenue on Fleet Week. Then she starts to neg him, saying that she doesn’t understand his tattoos or “why someone would want to make a billboard out of one’s torso.” But of course, she can’t look away.

Predictably, the two start a romance onboard, even though a rickety lifeboat caught the middle of war-torn waters might count as the least sexy hookup location in history. Especially when you’re starving to death, dehydrated after losing your water supply to a storm, and at the mercy of a German captain who’s steering you toward the inevitable fate of any allied captive in 1944: the concentration camp.

Perhaps that’s what makes the film feel weirdly horny, even though it shouldn’t. It’s not just Tallulah Bankhead’s campy queerness or John Hodiak’s insistence on remaining shirtless: it’s that these people are desperate to make one last connection before meeting their inevitably grim fate at the hands of the Nazis.

So what happens? Do they make it? Does Tallulah get her man? You’ll have to watch it and see.

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Tags: Queer Sapphic
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