One of the most revelatory film experiences of my childhood was watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat with my grandparents when I was 10. I can’t remember the exact circumstances—I believe it ran on PBS some lonesome Friday night, though I might be wrong about the night or the channel—but I’ll never forget the impact it had on me. It was my first Hitchcock. It was the first black-and-white movie I responded to that didn’t feature Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. More than that, though, I felt real urgency there—a claustrophobia that seemed to broaden the possibilities of storytelling in movies, as opposed to hamstringing them (a charge often leveled against films that are “stagey” in terms of confinement and structure). It set in place my love of films with limited settings and compressed timeframes. In any case, I was put in mind of that first-time viewing of Lifeboat when I watched Ted Geoghegan’s excellent Brooklyn 45.
Brooklyn 45 is set in a Park Slope brownstone two nights after Christmas in 1945, World War II having just come to an end a few months prior. The movie is bookended by scenes on the sidewalk outside the house, but we spend most of the runtime in the parlor where a group of military veterans and longtime friends have assembled. The brownstone is the home of Lieutenant Colonel Clive Hockstatter (the great Larry Fessenden), whose wife Susan has recently committed suicide. The gathering is an effort to support him at a truly difficult time. Anne Ramsay plays Marla Sheridan, whose high-pressure job involved interrogating Nazis during the war (she was known as “Marla the Merciless”), though she’s now settled into an adorable marriage with adorable Bob (Ron E. Rains), dragging him along for this makeshift reunion. Major Archibald Stanton (Jeremy Holm) and Major Paul DiFranco (Ezra Buzzington) round out the guest list. The characters have complicated pasts, both individually and collectively. As the night wears on, we learn much about who they are, what they believe, and how they respond in moments of crisis. In the meantime, however, Clive’s got a plan: he wants to have a séance to communicate with his dead wife, and he needs the help of the others. They’re reluctant, but they go along with it. A portal to the “other side” is thrust open, whereupon strange things start happening in the parlor. The radio plays on its own. Susan’s spirit shows up, pissed off. They’re trapped. Eventually, a German woman, Hildegard Baumann (Kristina Klebe), whom Susan had suspected of being a Nazi spy, is found tied up in the closet, Clive’s secret prisoner. The movie is largely a chamber piece about war, morality, and hypocrisy (interrogating what we do with the sins of the past, and what it means to get lost in a haze of hatred, paranoia, and jingoism), but it’s also a chilling ghost story, as the spirit realm infiltrates postwar Brooklyn.
Lifeboat isn’t the only point of comparison that jumped to mind. Brooklyn 45 is reminiscent of the low-budget horror movies that Val Lewton produced in the ’40s, and I thought often of modern classic comedies like Clue and Murder by Death. It’s got the energy and pacing of a shadow-strewn horror-noir—tense, taut, and purgatorial—but it’s also fun as hell, drifting toward a screwball tone at times. Geoghegan’s choice to keep the story so contained—using a limited setting and a small cast, relying purely on costuming and set design to establish the period, and doling out violence and gore in quick bursts—adds to the pervading sense of terror and dread.
Movies like this one live and die by the quality of their performances (there are a bunch of monologues), and here the whole cast is terrific. I’m a huge Larry Fessenden fan, so I got a special kick out of his turn as Clive. Like many folks, I first saw Anne Ramsay in A League of Their Own in 1992—I know she’s worked a lot over the years (I particularly remember her appearances on shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter), and it’s damn wonderful to see her in the lead role, a part that’s complex and substantial. Holm and Buzzington feel like they could’ve stumbled out of an actual ’40s acting troupe, and Klebe—with her quavering lyricism—steals the picture.
In the end, Brooklyn 45 is a visually and emotionally evocative throwback to what can sometimes feel like a lost mode of storytelling in the horror genre. What we don’t see—war crimes, the blackened souls of ruined humans, the promise of hell on earth—is what’s truly terrifying. Most impressive is Geoghegan’s ability to withhold, to allow so much story to boil under the surface. Beautifully constructed and suspenseful, it’s one of the great surprises of the year so far. 🩸
In 1983, JoBeth Williams appeared in the ensemble of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, thus immortalizing herself as an avatar for white baby boomery.
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