“What happens when six men and three women are alone in an open boat?”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Walter Slezak
Synopsis: Several survivors of a torpedoed ship find themselves in the same boat with one of the men who sunk it.
Although Alfred Hitchcock was too old to fight in WWII, his position as an eminent filmmaker gave him a unique opportunity to aid the war effort through the subject matter of his films. Two of his earliest Hollywood movies — Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur — contained plots based around insidious enemy agents threatening the democratic way of life — a thinly veiled plea on Hitchcock’s part for his adopted home to become involved in the European conflict. By the time he made Lifeboat, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour had ensured America’s participation in the conflict, and so this war movie differs from those others in that, rather than a call to arms it presents a cautionary tale warning of the danger of disunion in the face of the powerful efficiency of the Nazi war machine. Unfortunately for Hitch, audiences and critics somehow misunderstood the message at the heart of the movie, and some even went so far as to denounce it as pro-Nazi. Lifeboat was barely seen outside of major cities, and given that it easily measures up to Hitchcock’s more revered works, this might explain the movie’s more modest reputation when compared to those other classics. It certainly deserves to be up there with his best: Lifeboat is a bold, intelligent meditation on the human condition which scythes through the misconceptions of perceived moral superiority in time of war and warns against the complacency that can arise from such self-deluding assumptions.
Lifeboat opens with the sinking of a passenger ship by a German U-Boat. A handful of survivors from the ship clamber aboard a lifeboat, only to find there the perfectly attired newspaper correspondent Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) smoking a cigarette as she awaits rescue. The survivors are a typically mixed bunch. John Kovac (John Hodiak) is a ship’s engineer with socialist leanings, Charles S. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull — Werewolf of London) is a wealthy capitalist. Stan Garrett (Hume Cronyn — Shadow of a Doubt) is the British radio operator who informs the others there was no time to radio their position before the ship was hit. Alice Mackenzie (Mary Anderson), one of the ship’s nurses, must attend to seaman Gus Smith (William Bendix — The Blue Dahlia) whose wounded leg is in danger of becoming gangrenous. Also plucked from the sea is Joe (Canada Lee), a black waiter, and Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel — Peter Pan), one of the passengers, who is dragged aboard clutching her dead baby to her chest. The last — and least welcome — person to be helped aboard is Willi (Walter Slezak — Michael, Come September), the captain of the U-boat, which was also scuppered during the attack.
Relief at having survived the bombardment quickly evaporates when the reality of the group’s situation makes itself apparent. Their meagre stock of food and water, which was already dangerously low, is lost during a fierce — and impressively staged — storm; Gus’s leg becomes infected and needs to be amputated, arguments arise over who should lead the group, with Kovac balking at Rittenhouse’s unconscious presumption that he will lead, and they can’t agree on which direction offers the greatest hope of survival. Ironically, it is Willi, their prisoner, who proves to be the most resourceful and best prepared member of the group, and his sly assumption of control of the boat takes place almost unheeded by the rest of its passengers.
Hitchcock was never a director to rest on his laurels, and he had long wanted to test his film-making skills by making a movie confined to the smallest location possible. It’s no small measure of his talent that, as we watch the various dramas unfold, we are never once distracted by that single location. His message is delivered with subtlety, and the metaphorical role of each character is never overstated by Jo Swerling’s screenplay (based on an unpublished novella by John Steinbeck). The characters’ — and, by extension, society’s — blind belief that they are somehow above the mentality that made possible the Nazi’s rise to power is cleverly unravelled, layer by layer, until all rational thought is overwhelmed in one shocking and powerful incident. Only the one character who must have had personal experience of the thoughtless insensitivity of others rises above their brief descent into savagery, but he’s hopelessly outnumbered.
Although Lifeboat is an ensemble piece, it’s the abrasive Tallulah Bankhead’s movie from first scene to last. And yet she never overwhelms the rest of the cast, and is capable of moments of touching sincerity. John Hodiak, looking not unlike a young Martin Landau, makes an unconventional leading man who perhaps lacks the working class anger his part called for, and his odd romance with Bankhead’s character never really rings true. However, apart from Hume Cronyn, who struggles to control a British accent that eventually wanders off to Australia, the cast rises to the quality of the material. Slezak, in particular, makes a wonderfully personable villain, smiling benignly as he studies the social and psychological disintegration of his captors, allowing their own weaknesses and prejudices to work in his favour.
(Reviewed 27th July 2014)