There is an immediate appeal in the very premise of Alfred
Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), a
curiosity that stems from how exactly this story will play out and how the
Master of Suspense is going to keep the narrative taut and technically
stimulating. It was a gimmick he would repeat with Rope (1948), Dial M for
Murder (1954), and Rear Window
(1954), similar films where the drama is contained to a single setting. But
here, the approach is amplified by having the entirety of its plot limited to the
eponymous lifeboat, an extremely confined location that is at once anxiously restricting
and, at the same time, placed in a vast expanse of threatening openness.
Following a German U-boat attack that sinks an allied
freighter and creates the cramped, confrontational condition, a cast of nine
diverse, necessarily distinctive characters are steadily assembled aboard the
small vessel (and their variety is indeed necessary so as to tackle singular
themes and disparities). Starting with journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead,
in the film’s featured and much-hyped performance), the improvised squad
includes: a member of the freighter’s crew, Kovac (John Hodiak), the radioman,
Stanley (Hume Cronyn), a steward, Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), seaman, Gus Smith
(William Bendix), a U.S. Army nurse, Alice (Mary Anderson), the wealthy
industrialist, Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), the shell-shocked Mrs. Higley (Heather
Angel), an Englishwoman who arrives with her already deceased infant child,
and, adding instant and inherent tension, Willi (Walter Slezak), a survivor
from the enemy German sub.
Connie is the most incongruous personality for such an
occasion. Initially adorned in a fine mink coat, accompanied by her camera, her
cigarettes and suitcases, all of which seem miraculously dry, she sure doesn’t
look like someone who has been torpedoed, as another character is quick to
point out. She and Rittenhouse will together serve as half of the film’s
embodied class consciousness, which is one of several social divisions alluded
to as explicit points of contention or simply hinted at as latent cultural
conflicts (“Do I get to vote too?” asks the African American Joe). Though
generally cordial and cooperative to start, the spirit of critical
collaboration doesn’t last. How could it? For a film like this, there needs to
be a breeding ground for consistent opposition, beyond the predictable clash
between Willi and the rest.
What develops is multi-leveled, ever-fluctuating suspicion,
a leery and fascistic survival of the fittest that hangs in the balance as the
winds of authority and hysteria blow. With his famously elaborate set-pieces
made impossible by Lifeboat’s scenario,
Hitchcock narrows his focus to the dynamic landscape of the human face, and the
film is nothing if not a revelatory study in human nature, especially when
individuals are in strained situations. There are constant disputes about the
best path forward, often grounded in ideological motivations derived from
political, religious, or national beliefs—whatever is needed to prevail and
retain a semblance of composure in the face of an extraordinary dilemma.
In a swift 97 minutes—its riveting progression a testament
to how the tension outweighs its spatial and dramatic limitations—the
characters endure assorted trials and tribulations, just enough to keep
everyone on edge, but not too many to seem unnatural. This ranges from the
unique (Gus’ impending leg amputation), to an issue that affects just a few
(cheating at cards), to something upon which all involved are invested (the
bliss of fresh rainwater to drink and the disappointment when the passing storm
doesn’t last). There are lingering doubts about motivation, the debatable
course of progress, and turn-on-a-dime behavioral shifts. Two passengers even
find time for romance.
To express all of this, and to keep the viewer engaged when
the actions and visuals, at least in a broad sense, are relatively reduced, the
writing of Lifeboat is tremendously
vital. While Hitchcock came up with the idea for the picture, the basic story
was written by John Steinbeck (after Hitch’s first choice, Ernest Hemingway,
passed). It was Steinbeck’s first fiction film, though he had written a
documentary in 1941. What he completed, however, resembled something more like
a novella. Subsequent writing and rewriting duties went to everyone from Harry
Sylvester and MacKinlay Kantor, to Jo Swerling, Ben Hecht, Hitchcock’s wife,
Alma Reville, and others. Ultimately, only Swerling gets the screenplay credit
(Steinbeck, who was so unhappy with the deviations in the final film that he
tried to have his name removed from the picture, gets original story).
While Hitchcock’s capacity for cinematic inventiveness was obviously restricted (it was “the smallest set in movie history,” advertisements proclaimed), Lifeboat boasts some stunning photography, particularly in the nighttime scenes when cinematographer Glen MacWilliams executes more pointed lighting (it is here that the quality of the superb new Kino Lorber Blu-ray transfer is most evident). Moments of intense antipathy cultivate through sharp close-ups, a sporadically hastened editorial tempo, and concise camera movements; one sudden clash combines everything as a storm concurrently rages, providing an additional flurry of distress that plays off a nicely symbolic act of God. Lifeboat may have been a technical, stylistic, and logistical challenge (four lifeboats were used during shooting; two complete, two cut in half to accommodate the camera), but Hitchcock even still managed to squeeze in his trademark cameo, popping up in a newspaper advertisement for a weight loss product called “Reduco.”
Hitchcock's most creative cameo.
As the only film Hitchcock made with 20th Century Fox, Lifeboat received several Academy Award nominations, including his second of five for Best Director and nods going to Steinbeck and MacWilliams. Coming out in 1944, though, Lifeboat generated more buzz as a rather provocative wartime statement. This wasn’t unfamiliar territory for Hitchcock, who was deeply concerned about his own family back in England, as his daughter recalls in an “making of” interview on the Kino Lorber disc, and had similarly broached the subject of World War II with the pro-ally Foreign Correspondent (1940). Here, the beleaguered cast represents a microcosm of the wartime populace, as cliques and alliances are formed on a floating global chessboard. Each of the characters are given at least one sequence to shine, but the film, like the struggles on the lifeboat itself, is also a team effort, so none of the individual performances succeed without the requisite counterparts to work with and against. For some, however, this equity proved problematic, especially as it concerned Willi. The others on the boat may not have to like their Axis opponent, but suddenly, they have to tolerate him. More than that, at times, they depend on him. The whole predicament produces animosity and a curiously controversial tolerance (though when the German allows for the delirious death of another, his brutality is horrifically clear). There are times when we forget Willi’s Nazi genesis, but there are also moments when even the decent folk show what they’re capable of in dire straits. For better or worse, that revelation has often been a crucial part of Hitchcock’s modus operandi. We’ve seen his heroes and villains do surprising things when push comes to shove. And we certainly see this in Lifeboat.
In addition to the Making of Lifeboat documentary, the newly released Kino Lorber Blu-ray includes an animated montage of images and a double dose of commentary, one track from film professor Drew Casper (a holdover from a previously issued Blu-ray), and a new track from film historian Tim Lucas.