Lifeboat (1944)


(director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: from a story by John Steinbeck/Jo Swerling/Ben Hecht; cinematographer: Glen MacWilliams; editor: Dorothy Spencer; music: Hugo W. Friedhofer; cast: Tallulah Bankhead (Constance ‘Connie’ Porter), Walter Slezak (Willy), John Hodiak (John Kovac), William Bendix (Gus Smith), Hume Cronyn (Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett), Henry Hull ( Charles D. ‘Ritt’ Rittenhouse), Canada Lee (George ‘Joe’ Spencer), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), William Yetter Jr. (German sailor); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Kenneth MacGowan; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1944-UK)
“It’s based on the story by John Steinbeck, who wanted to show the Nazis as single-minded brutes with no redeeming human qualities.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A disaster pic made during WWII about a wartime passenger-carrying luxury steamer torpedoed by a German U-boat and of a few survivors of the shipwreck adrift in a lifeboat in the Atlantic. It’s based on the story by John Steinbeck, who wanted to show the Nazis as single-minded brutes with no redeeming human qualities. Alfred Hitchcock (“The Birds”/”Rear Window”/Vertigo”) directs this overlooked film in an even more claustrophobic way than he did in Rear Window and Rope, while Jo Swerling and Ben Hecht are the screenwriters who keep things paddling along the vast ocean with a salty outlook for mankind.

The nine survivors on the lifeboat include spoiled wealthy fashion newspaper columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), industrial tycoon Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), dim-witted regular guy stoker with a gangrene leg Gus (William Bendix), class conscious socialist seaman Kovak (John Hodiak), concerned but bewildered nurse Alice (Mary Anderson), meek English radioman Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), a balmy Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) who is a suicidal mother cradling her child who had just died, and a family man and devout Christian black steward named Joe (Canada Lee). They are soon joined by a German sailor, Willy (Walter Slezak)–a seemingly clever practical-minded corpulent man with a plan. He never lets on, but could be the captain of the submarine that fired upon them and in return his boat was shelled.

The only qualified navigator is Willy, but there’s a question if the good guys can trust a Nazi to take them to safety to Bermuda. They argue whether or not to toss him overboard and democratically vote to keep him rowing. We will learn in due time that the cunning German hides food tablets and water and steers a course not for land, but to a secret rendezvous with a German supply ship. Though the group reluctantly accepted him, he repays their kindness by pushing overboard the delirious amputee Gus. The survivors awake from their slumber and kill him in the same brutal way he killed Gus.

The wartime propaganda film seems too calculated and artificial as a melodrama to bring much depth to its sea adventure story, but is interesting in how Hitchcock keeps it from being a predictable morality play about good vs. evil. The cross-section microcosm of society on the lifeboat is filled with diverse characters who are not meant to get along with each other (they range from caregivers to cruel monsters), but in order to survive in this stark unsafe setting must find a way to live together.

The film’s single location set is unattractive (shot entirely on a lifeboat–filmed as an experimental minimalist film), but the masterful Hitchcock somehow shoots it in close-up and makes the small lifeboat look big as he artfully proves size doesn’t always matter in filming.

Bankhead, who loses her furs, jewels, valuable photos of the torpedo strike and eventually her uppity demeanor, gives the film’s most compelling performance of a witty parasite brought down a few pegs during the course of this adventure. The ensemble cast all respond in a fine fashion to Hitchcock’s handling of them in such close quarters and the film reaches a chilling climax that brings all of humanity around to sharing a collective guilt over such usual worldly unpleasantness as betrayal, violence, suicide, amputation, starvation, selfishness, and a dogmatic belief in false values.

The propaganda value of the film might be muddied, as those folks from a democracy at times don’t seem all that different from the Nazis (though the film was dismissed by some for its Allied propaganda; something I don’t agree with if you look at it more carefully as a study of human nature and sheep-like mob mentality).